Get to know our new CEO, Julian Sleath

17 April

It’s an exciting time for The Bentway. Can you explain your professional history, and what you see in The Bentway’s future?

JS: It has been quite a journey in many ways, both for the project and for myself. I trained in Forestry and Ecology but was always interested in theatre and the performing arts, not as an actor, but in the backstage technical and design work. For many years, I worked as a technical director and production manager in theatre, dance and opera, arriving in Canada in the final month of 1999 (almost the new millennium), to be part of the team that was building the new opera house for Toronto. It took longer than we thought it would to start construction—however, it has turned out to be one of the best in the world for seeing and listening to opera. I am very proud of my role in creating such a landmark venue. I also worked for Luminato and for the City of Toronto, so I have really got to know how the arts, culture and entertainment events can animate this city and help us understand our place in the changing landscape. I have grown to love this city and am delighted to return to it and lead The Bentway into the next stage of its development. It means very much to me and is my hope that we create an exciting new public space for everyone to enjoy and engage with.

How will your past experience in theatre impact how you approach your new position at The Bentway?

JS: I have been lucky to work on the design and implementation of a number of major cultural buildings around the world for both permanent programmes and for temporary or one-off events. Never did I think I would be asked to re-imagine the space underneath a major connecting roadway and turn it into a special place for celebration, community engagement and re-imagining how we interact with large city infrastructure. That said, I did just take another walk underneath the Gardiner, and looking at the imposing concrete beams that are “The Bents”, they resemble a series of theatrical proscenium arches that have already been opened up for some kind of surprise and invention. I look forward to working with my team and our many programme partners to animate these structures.

Are you currently reading any books? Which book has influenced you most?

JS: I picked up Shawn Micalleff’s book “Frontier City: Toronto On The Verge of Greatness” recently—yes, it was an airport impulse purchase that turned out to be a very entertaining read on the plane. A sort of “thriller” for the future of the city—any city. Of course there are conversations about our former Mayor, however, when the writing moves onto the actual ward walks with prospective 2010 election candidates, I found it to be a great insight into what really matters to a large and growing city that is grappling with its old infrastructure and systems. It really does ask us to think about how we must change our perception of what makes it (a city) a thriving place.

On my return to Toronto, I was loaned a couple of books on the subject of “Under The Elevated,” which look at how New York is transforming a number of what they call “El-spaces”—highways and bridges—that were once considered to be forlorn spaces under the subway lines.

I look forward to reading more about these projects and how they are making a city-wide toolkit for innovative transformation and management through these physical improvements, temporary installations, and a variety of programming ideas.

There are too many other books being packed into cardboard boxes for transport back here—ranging from architecture and visual art, to circus and theatre history—to mention just one book that has the most influence. The best recent read that has nothing to do with what I do for a living has to be Fifteen Dogs by award-winning Canadian writer André Alexis—though I recently learned that there is a plan to turn his novel into a puppet opera.

What possibilities excite you the most for arts programming at The Bentway? How do you expect The Bentway to be activated for future large-scale outdoor events in Toronto?

JS: From a theatre perspective, it is a massive opportunity both because of its sheer scale and for the fact that it is part of our everyday lives. I believe that The Bentway team will have to programme a broad range of activity, and allow ourselves to get involved in many other areas of social and human interaction. I am looking forward to the day when recreational and sporting activity are co-mingling with musical, theatrical and dance events. It will be a space for sharing and exchange. The first phase will be a gateway to the events that are already taking place at Fort York.As we roll out further sections of The Bentway, I believe we will create a connecting ribbon between the city and the lake.

It’s been a while since you’ve been based in Toronto. What are you most excited about returning to? What are your favourite places in the city?

JS: Wow, a great deal has changed just in the last two years of living away. Yes, I have been back to visit Toronto since 2015, but I was surprised at how dynamic and changing landscape is here. Every little pocket of space in the downtown core is being eyed for future development. I am hugely interested by a number of inserted parks that have happened, from the tiny Percy Street Parkette to its near neighbor, Underpass Park. I also like exploring many of the laneways and being surprised by the mixture of small industrial premises that still go about their business just off the main streets, along with an interesting number of residential homes that are being built in these “backyards.” One of my all-time favorites has to be the R. C. Harris Water Treatment Plant. It was built in an age when city infrastructure was something to applaud and be proud of. If you are fortunate enough to have been inside during Doors Open Toronto, you would find huge machinery and yet detailed attention to display panels and operating switches, the likes of which are never designed today. Even just a stroll through the grounds outside is quite inspiring.

Embracing Toronto’s distinct ecology plays a vital role in the environmental design of The Bentway. Which ecological element of The Bentway do you find the most exciting, and why?

JS: As I mentioned, my earlier background was very much out in the wilds of the Scottish forests studying the plants and animals that lived in that habitat. With The Bentway we are looking at a very different ecology—one which humans have profoundly influenced and constructed. Just steps away are the grounds of Fort York and Garrison Common—also a man made defense for the emerging Town of York—and yet despite its proximity to the rail lands and the Gardiner, it is a remarkably tranquil place and teeming with all kinds of plant and wildlife that co-exist with us. The Bentway is very much a part of the urban ecology, and we are determined to find a way to connect the human community around it to the origins of the land on which it is situated. At the same time we have to acknowledge our very contemporary setting.

What are your thoughts on adaptive reuse, and how do you see The Bentway contributing to this emerging global trend?

JS: Adaptive reuse has been around for a long time—you just have to take a look at the 1994 book and 6-part BBC TV series How Buildings Learn by Stewart Brand to realize that for hundreds of years, man has changed the purpose of one building into another. The phenomenon of turning urban infrastructure such as the Gardiner or a former railway track in Chicago or New York into a new linear landscape is just a continuation of that history. The Bentway is almost “bookended” at east and west by the two former grain silos that I can see from my apartment. I hope that those two locations are also brought into a new existence in the very near future and The Bentway helps catalyze other similar projects.

You’ve told us a lot about your professional experience and expertise, but what do you most enjoy doing outside of work? Do you have any hobbies?

JS: I have always enjoyed going and seeing many other events, from engaging talks, art exhibitions, food festivals, and the really great music scene, but the biggest surprise to this readership is probably that I make marmalade (along with jams and pickles). Earlier this year I was awarded two silvers and two bronzes at The World Marmalade Awards, where over two thousand jars were entered for 2017. I am also looking forward to returning as a volunteer supreme gleaner at the Toronto-based fruit picking project Not Far From The Tree, a brilliant way of making use of the back garden fruit of Toronto. Look out for me and a team picking an urban apple, pear, or cherry tree this summer.

What is your ultimate goal as CEO of The Bentway Conservancy?

JS: For what may seem a complicated project—it is actually quite simple. I want The Bentway to become a vital connection between the downtown core and the lake. I want it to connect the four cardinal north, south, east, and west parts of the city through links with other parks and trails. I want it to come alive as a friendly and welcoming space, and above all else, a place for everyone.