A Life's Story
December 05, 2020
Transformational, inspirational energy
Bears on Broadway among many career highlights of Barry McArton, 70
By: Jen Zoratti
Barry McArton was the type of man who, to borrow a camping maxim, liked to leave things better than he found them.
Many of the city’s biggest institutions, from the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra to the CancerCare Manitoba Foundation, have been changed by his infectious enthusiasm, tireless energy, and dogged persistence.
McArton died Oct. 5, at the age of 70.
One would be hard-pressed to find a resumé quite like McArton’s.
He was a waterskiing instructor in St. Maarten. A cruise ship director. The executive director of two symphony orchestras (Winnipeg and Vancouver). As executive director of the CancerCare foundation, he quarterbacked the novel fundraiser involving 62 concrete polar bears popping up in downtown Winnipeg.
McArton had a particular gift for fundraising, most recently as volunteer chairman for the Combined Jewish Appeal (Jewish Federation of Winnipeg).
It is but a sliver of what McArton accomplished professionally. But despite his many gigs, he never fit the workaholic stereotype.
"The biggest thing about Barry was he was all about family," says Carol McArton, 67, his wife of 33 years. Their twins, Ian and Sydney, are 32.
The second-biggest thing is he loved waterskiing. Any time he could combine the two, it was a perfect day.
"He made some of his greatest friendships through the sport," Carol says. "He taught his kids to ski, he sort of taught his wife to ski, but it wasn’t quite her thing... This summer, he got the pleasure of towing his two grandchildren (Teddy and Rowan) behind the boat on what I would call a couch.
"It was the biggest inflatable imaginable and all his friends said, ‘We never thought we’d see something like that behind Barry’s boat.’ But it gave him such incredible pleasure to do that."
The couple’s first date was something out of a rom com: when Barry met Carol. They were set up for a lunch by a mutual friend, Tom. It did not go well.
"Barry thought I was horribly stuck up. I thought he was disgusting," Carol recalls with a laugh.
Several years later, Tom invited Carol to his 30th birthday at Betula Lake, where Carol and Barry would eventually have their own cottage. Carol was unsure; she didn’t know anyone. "And he says, ‘But you know Barry.’"
This time, they hit it off. But during the course of the evening, Carol kept telling Barry she had a boyfriend in Vancouver. (She did not have a boyfriend in Vancouver.)
Still, there was something about Barry. They ended up dating for just six months before they got married in 1987. The twins followed in 1988.
Ian McArton and twin sister Sydney O’Bray remember their father as fun, present and supportive — both as a dad and a coach (hockey and soccer).
"Our friends all love him and kind of think of him as a second dad, I think," Ian says. "Everybody loved his positive energy."
Despite his schedule, he prioritized his family.
"He just figured out a way to be with us and super involved in our lives," Sydney says. "My women’s soccer team — we got together when we were 15, and I think we just gave up the team maybe a year or two ago — he was the manager and super involved. He did so much for the sport, but he was just always there.
"He never missed some practice or game. He was the one that picked us up from the bar."
Geoff Hayes began a 30-year friendship with McArton as the new kids at the WSO at the dawn of the 1990s.
It was an exciting time. Bramwell Tovey had just begun his tenure as music director in 1989. McArton had been brought on as marketing and public relations director, before becoming executive director in late 1991. Hayes came to the orchestra in ‘91, following a 13-year run as graphic designer at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet.
McArton’s promotion came just three weeks before the WSO was about to launch the New Music Festival in January 1992 — a bold, risky new venture. Marketing contemporary classical music to a traditional orchestra audience was akin to Tom marketing Barry to Carol in those early days.
"It was just so great to have someone like Barry who, in some ways, he didn’t know enough about it to be afraid of it," Hayes says. "He had what you could call a naive genius.
"In classical arts organizations, you tend to get fans working there, tend to get people that are really committed and devoted to it. And so they kind of treat it like it’s this precious, Fabergé egg kind of thing."
That wasn’t McArton. In order to boost box office revenue for the New Music Festival, he drew on experience from an unlikely place on his CV.
"He said, ‘We’re going to use the cruise ship model,’" Hayes recalls. "I couldn’t think of anything more antithetical to how you would sell 20th-century classical music to a Canadian Prairie audience."
McArton explained it this way: on cruise ships, you give people more than they could ever use. No matter how much or how little you use, if there’s still something left on the table, it’s been a great value. Thus, the festival pass was born.
McArton and then-composer-in-residence Glenn Buhr also conspired to have bleacher seating on the stage — again, something that just wasn’t done in an orchestra setting. It was a hit.
"That first year, with the bleachers on the stage and everybody pounding the stage with their feet or pounding on their bleachers to express their pleasure with the music was unbelievable," Carol recalls. "You wouldn’t think you were at a symphony."
Spending decades at one workplace was not McArton’s style.
"He always had that kind of tactical and strategic approach to his life," Hayes says. "And that he never stayed too long at the fair. He preferred to leave at the top of things."
Obviously, one can’t talk about McArton without talking about Bears on Broadway, the beloved 2005 public art installation-meets-fundraiser for CancerCare. Sixty-two hulking polar bears, each painted by a local artist and corporately sponsored, lining Broadway was a sight that delighted Winnipeggers young and old.
"Oh, it just brought tears to my eyes," Carol says of the bears. "They were so beautiful and fun. And there they were, for all of Winnipeg."
McArton inspired many people in his life, but it was Carol who galvanized him.
"He loved me so much," Carol says, eyes welling. "He was the most loyal person... We had a chance to say goodbye in the hospital before things really went wrong for him. And he said something to me that he never said before: he said I inspired him every day. He was just so much love."
Hayes describes their relationship as transformational. McArton, it turns out, didn’t just leave organizations changed.
"Barry is one of those individuals that anybody that dealt with him or worked with him wasn’t the same after," Hayes says, voice breaking. "He made us completely reconsider everything that was possible."