The Koffler Centre of the Arts is delighted to announce the appointment of Karen Tisch to the position of Executive Director. She succeeds Cathy Jonasson, who is stepping down after an exceptional six-year tenure at the Koffler.

Ms. Tisch is a veteran arts manager, programmer, and consultant with more than 25 years of experience in the Canadian arts sector, including executive positions at the Ashkenaz Foundation, Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, Images Festival, and Toronto Arts Council. Ms. Tisch begins her new role at the Koffler on March 4, 2019.

Read the Press Release announcing the appointment of Karen Tisch, incoming Executive Director of the Koffler Centre of the Arts.


How did the arts first enter your life?
The arts have always been an integral part of my life. My father is an architect and exposed me to visual arts from a very young age. My mother was a folk dancer in her youth and my grandmother an accomplished pianist, and both passed on their love of performing arts. I also cannot remember a day in my chil­­dhood when my head was not buried in a book. By 10, I was training full-time to be a dancer.

You’re an alumna of the National Ballet School and OCAD. Can you briefly describe the path that led you to arts management and programming?
After an injury curtailed my dance ambitions, my path was a winding one but ultimately I realized I was less of an artist and more of an arts advocate and facilitator. While still a student at OCAD, I became actively involved in the local independent film and video and artist-run centre movement and ultimately became the Programming Director of the Images Festival and the Board President of A Space Gallery. That was my first immersion into the world of arts programming and management – and I was hooked!

What is it about the Koffler’s mandate that excites you?
Everything! The focus on highlighting diverse voices and cultural expressions through a social justice lens; the concept of engaging audiences of all ages and backgrounds in a vibrant dialogue about the most vital issues of our times; the multi-disciplinary and community-centred approach; and the idea of positioning Jewish identity in conversation with other cultural perspectives, is all of great interest to me. As a cultural platform, the Koffler integrates many of my chief interests and passions.

You are a passionate bibliophile. Tell us about the last great book you read.
It is impossible to choose one! Two recent favourites, both recommended to me by my filmmaker friend Mike Hoolboom, are Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot and America is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo. Mailhot is a Nlaka’pamux author from the Seabird Island First Nation in British Columbia. Her book is a raw, hypnotic and heartrending memoir that explores issues of mental health, abuse and survival. I think it is a must-read for anyone trying to better understand the effects of intergenerational trauma. It is also a haunting and poetic account of an Indigenous woman’s struggle to reclaim her space. Castillo’s novel is a sprawling saga set in a diasporic Filipino-American community in the San Francisco Bay area. The story is a complex narrative on race, sexuality, migration, family and the intersection of the personal and the political. I loved its lush beauty, scope and ambition. 

Where do you turn for inspiration?
I turn to books, visual art, film and theatre – it is the voices and expressions of artists and writers that stoke my imagination, help me navigate the complexities of our modern world and generally energize and inspire me. I also turn to my 16-year-old daughter and her friends, especially when I am feeling gloomy about current events, because I am very hopeful that the next generation will create a more just, equitable and sustainable planet.

You have done important work with issues of diversity and accessibility in the arts. Do you see progress in how arts organizations are addressing inclusion and equity issues?
I do see progress. In the 1990s, when I first began working in the professional arts scene, issues of equity, access and Indigenous rights were only just entering the common discourse in the mainstream Canadian arts world, despite the successes of various women’s, anti-racism, Indigenous and activist movements in other public spheres. At the time, I was inspired by the work and advocacy of Canadian artists and writers like Richard Fung, Lillian Allen, Dionne Brand, Alanis Obomsawin, b.h. Yael, Jamelie Hassan, Midi Onodera, Jorge Lozano, Robert Houle, Ali Kazimi, Paul Wong and Roy Miki, among others. I became an active player in the movement to create more equitable and accessible arts institutions, funding agencies, festivals and artist-run spaces. There were many explosive battles in those days, with some initial resistance to change. In recent years, I have seen a much wider embrace of concepts of pluralism, as well as significant momentum in the struggle for disability and Indigenous rights. However, I think there is still work to be done. Celebrating diversity has become the norm in the Canadian arts sector but truly sharing power is still a “work-in-progress.”

Name three well-known Torontonians, dead or alive, who you would invite to your ideal dinner party.
I think I it would be fun to go back in time, so I would share a meal with a triumvirate of women activists from Toronto’s past: urban activist Jane Jacobs, anti-slavery advocate Mary Ann Shadd, and prison reform activist Agnes Macphail. (Drake would be welcome to drop by for dessert.)

Who has been your most important mentor?
I have been fortunate to have many mentors in my life. Documentary filmmaker Ali Kazimi, equity in the arts leader Sharon Fernandez, and video artist Richard Fung have probably most influenced my professional interests and work. Personally, I would have to say my parents, the quintessential hard-working immigrant couple who forged a path for me and my brother in Canada.

What do you imagine the next five years might hold for the Koffler?
I predict a very bright future for the Koffler, which is poised to further assert itself as a leading centre for intercultural dialogue through art. I look at the current programming – the first solo show of Toronto-based Persian artist Ghazaleh Avarzamani, and upcoming literary events featuring Indigenous writers Joshua Whitehead and Arielle Twist, and US-based Indian writer Amitava Kumar – and I am filled with excitement. With its growing network of artistic and community collaborators and dynamic, multi-disciplinary programming, my hope is that the Koffler will increasingly be recognized as a key artistic and community hub, an incubator for innovative ideas, and a vibrant platform for cross-cultural dialogue. I am excited to collaborate with the Koffler team to more fully weave the organization into the cultural and social fabric of the City and to expand its reputation as a welcoming space for people of all backgrounds to discover great art.