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For Arts Legend Norman Armour, with Thanks

A friend remembers the co-founder of Vancouver’s PuSh Festival, his bold vision and what he leaves behind.

Minna Schendlinger 7 Dec 2023The Tyee

Minna Schendlinger was the founding managing director of the PuSh Festival and the founding facility manager of the Post at 750. She currently works as a planner for the City of Vancouver.

[Editor’s note: Norman Armour died in Vancouver on Nov. 19, 2023, a quiet Sunday that sent ripples through the local arts community. Armour is best known for his foundational work with the PuSh Festival, Vancouver’s boundary-breaking performing arts festival, which he co-founded in 2005 with Katrina Dunn. He was cherished for his big-hearted, generous approach to his work and, more importantly, the people who were part of it.

One of Armour’s final acts was as the curator for the Vancouver International Film Festival’s live offerings, called VIFF Live, this fall, which Tyee culture editor Dorothy Woodend covered in October 2023. People from around the world have been writing their memories of Armour in a widely circulating Google document. Today, Armour’s longtime friend and collaborator Minna Schendlinger shares a reflection on their years together.]

Visionary. Legend. Giant. Leader. Artist. Inspiration.

Yes, Norman Armour was all these things to the Vancouver arts community and to many people outside it. He was also known as a risk taker. And oh, boy: did he take a risk on me.

I met Norman in September 2005, at what was then the offices of Touchstone Theatre on Beatty Street, for a job interview. I’d never actually met him, but of course I knew who he was. Every self-respecting ambitious member of the arts community in the late ’90s and early aughts knew who Norman Armour was.

Surprising no one who actually knew him, Norman was late to the interview. When I was called in, he was crouched in an oversized coat and hat, despite it being relatively warm inside (I was sweating through my fingertips).

Also surprising to no one who knew him, the interview was conducted mostly by the three women in the room. Close to the end, when I was pretty sure I had nailed it, Norman unfolded himself from the corner of the couch, leaned over with his elbows on his knees and fixed me with that piercing gaze of his.

“What matters most to you in your work?” he asked me.

It completely disarmed me. I have no idea how I responded to that question. Whatever I said, it intrigued him enough to invite me back for a second interview, and whatever I said there resulted in a job offer.

The early days of the PuSh Festival were tough. There were a lot of late nights prepping grant applications. We applied for them all, whether we were eligible or not. “It’s OK, we’re getting the name out there,” Norman assured me.

I’d also spend evenings preparing for meetings, for which I was always early and he was always late. We developed our systems — filing, budgeting, HR. Norman loved the elegance of a good system. He taught me the beauty of a well-constructed spreadsheet, and that a budget should act as the narrative for a good year’s plan.

We butted heads. A lot. Neither of us was especially stubborn; we were both just really sure that we were right, and had to work hard to persuade the other one to consider our perspective.

There were days when I was sure that we had reached the end of our patience with each other. But we always came back and started again the next day, because the one thing that we could always agree on was that we really cared about this venture, this thing called PuSh. Not just for ourselves, but for everyone else involved: the artists, the board, the staff, the volunteers and the audience. It mattered to us to make the best possible go of it.

Norman was right about the grants. I worried about wasting our time on applications that wouldn’t be successful, but we got really good at writing applications, and we got a lot of them, which helped us build the capacity that we needed to hire more people to work with us and get us more money to build more capacity.

Norman was right about a lot of things, and he encouraged me to take risks that I wouldn’t normally have taken. He was wrong about a lot of things, too. We would make a decision that wouldn’t work out as we anticipated or hoped, referring to it as a “mistake.” And I would say to him that it wasn’t a mistake, but rather a decision that we made that didn’t work the way we thought. He appreciated that.

The PuSh Festival’s success reflected Norman’s determination as much as it reflected his vision and artistic prowess. The artistic risks didn’t always pay off, and one of Norman’s true superpowers was his ability to reframe the narrative of “failure.” Trying and being wrong was never a failure. And that philosophy permeated the PuSh Festival stakeholders, both internal and external.

I never saw him humble or ashamed. He owned every decision that he made. On some men, that would look egotistical and conceited. On Norman, it was honest. And an opportunity to reflect on how he came to the decision.

Of all the words I could use to describe Norman, the one that resonates the most with me is “care.” Norman cared deeply about so many people and so many things. And he was a caring person. He was not careless about anything. He was careful in the sense of the word that is less frequently used: he was thoughtful about everything.

He often overthought — many of our conversations over the years were him talking through his thoughts and me listening and attempting to make sense of what he was trying to tell me. I verbally proofread him as he expounded, and we would get to the heart of the matter together, whether it was a show description for a grant application, a welcome message for the program guide or an organizational profile for a strategic plan.

When I determined that my time as PuSh Festival’s managing director had come to an end, I handed Norman my letter of resignation.

He took it and read it, carefully, twice.

Then he leaned back in his chair and fixed me with that gaze, and I had no idea what he would say next.

He smiled, leaned forward, took my hands in his and said, “Thank you.”

That moment, probably more than so many others that we shared over our 18-year friendship, is the one that stays with me every day.

Thank you, Norman.  [Tyee]

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