Jacoba Knaapen

As a champion for the performing arts, Jacoba has passionately worked in Toronto’s cultural sector for over three decades. Deeply committed to the ongoing development of theatre, dance and opera, she is the past recipient of a Harold Award for her contribution and mentorship to the Independent Theatre community and a recipient of a Vital People Award from The Toronto Community Foundation. Additionally she serves as the Chair of ArtsVote Toronto and also teaches Arts Marketing at the Arts Administration – Cultural Management Program, Humber College.

Photo of Jacoba Knaapen by Sean Howard


What does it mean to you to be nominated for the Margo Bindhardt and Rita Davies Award?

I didn’t know Margo Bindhardt, but I do know Rita Davies, and it’s such an honour to be recognized by the nomination committee for this award. I am - like so many people in the field of arts and culture - working in the background. We’re not performing as actors or dancers. When we’re working behind the scenes, we’re often toiling in obscurity. So this is great.

The Margo Bindhardt and Rita Davies Award is presented to an individual who has demonstrated creative cultural leadership in the development of arts and culture in Toronto. What does leadership in the arts mean to you? 

I have the privilege in my capacity at TAPA to represent 201 professional theatre, dance and opera companies in our city. There’s such a breadth of work between 201 professional companies, from the large institutions to the smaller not for profit companies. It really is a responsibility to help work on their behalf in terms of advocacy, in terms of helping them to find and sustain new audiences through different marketing initiatives, and to help ensure that this industry continues to grow and thrive.

What’s your approach to leadership?

My approach to leadership at TAPA and in the other initiatives that I lead, is always to work with a team. You’re only as good as your team, and we’re all working with a deficit of human resources as well as cash resources. Careful consideration is given to casting, and who you’re surrounding yourself with in terms of committees, my board of directors, my volunteers, and a small staff team. We’re all working together in a collaborative way to create change that’s really impactful, and that’s really going to help. I also feel a big responsibility as a woman. We need to support each other. Women need to pull each other up. Women leaders have a responsibility, I believe, to help the next generation. 

You have a background in theatre as an actor. How do the skills you’ve learned as an actor translate to your work as a cultural leader?

I started in this industry as an actor, and that’s a good thing. It gave me all of the skills I needed in terms of public speaking, it gave me the confidence to trust my instincts, and to believe in myself. My background in acting slowly morphed over the years to becoming a producer, and then into becoming an administrator / executive director. The improvisation that’s frequently required to be on your toes, to be responsive - all of those skills and all of that training as an actor has helped me.

You co-founded the Harold Awards in 1994, Toronto’s alternative theatre awards which honour under-recognized contributions to Toronto’s theatre community. It’s a fun spirited and welcoming event. What’s the significance of the Harold Awards?

I was one of a group of people that co-founded the Harold Awards which are the alternative theatre awards. It’s ironic, because I now produce the largest and oldest award show in the country, the Dora Mavor Moore Awards. The other bookend of the Doras is the Harolds. Those of us who co-founded the awards many years ago, did so out of respect for Harold Kandel, his spirit, and his fearlessness to heckle you on stage when you were in a show.  Some people would say, “when Harold Heckled me I knew I had arrived.” The indie community was much smaller then, and Harold came to see absolutely everything. He was a champion for our indie burgeoning community at that time. A lot of people don’t remember Harold. It’s on all of us to help continue the narrative of Harold and his raw, genuine support.

What are you working on at TAPA today? What are your goals for the organization?

TAPA just launched a new Strategic Plan called Standing Strong, which will take us to 2020. It has four pillars of focus. One of those is advocacy, focused primarily on municipal advocacy at the City of Toronto. We lead the annual Arts Day at the City, and we are fighting hard to get us to $25 per capita. We also publish the TAPA Stats Report. It’s a nuts and bolts overview of the numbers. The numbers are only one way to tell our story, maybe not the most sexy way to tell the story, but absolutely essential to understanding our industry as part of the economic engine of the City of Toronto.

Another pillar of the Strategic Plan is our marketing and value to our TAPA membership. We have a number of marketing initiatives, and one that I’m really excited about right now is our new city-wide app called TOnight. It’s literally a box office in your pocket. We’re trying to encourage Torontonians to go and see theatre and dance and opera, not just once a year when it’s your birthday, or someone’s anniversary, but we’re encouraging people to go every two months as a life style choice. We’re encouraging everyone to get engaged with the amazing selection of what’s taking place on Toronto stages.

The third pillar of TAPA’s Strategic Plan is internal in that we’re always increasing the value to our TAPA members. We’re very conscientious of constantly reassessing, re-evaluating, and re-visioning what our programs and services are so that we can be responsive to the changes in the field. Right now we’re undergoing a review of the Dora Mavor Moore Awards.

Our fourth and final pillar is financial stability at TAPA, which of course as an arts service organization is something that’s essential so that we can continue to deliver all of our programs and services. This includes the Hip Tix program which is an incredible program that offers tickets to students from the age of 15-29 for just $5. It removes all of the economic barriers and it encourages them to go see a play for $5.

You’re also an arts advocate, both through TAPA and in your personal life. What do the arts mean to you? What’s the value of the arts?

I’ve worked in the arts my whole life, and I can’t imagine doing anything else. I believe that the arts have the ability to change lives. We’re not medical practitioners, we’re not saving lives, but if we’re doing our job properly, we’re changing lives. I believe that culture enriches all of us, and is an essential part of the human voice and the human experience.

TAPA is an uphill battle with not enough resources. Why do you continue?

We really are living in a time of unprecedented change - and in spite of the screens, in spite of all of the competition that’s out there right now, not only with the 201 professional theatre, dance and opera companies at TAPA, but in music, in the visual arts with museums and art galleries, in architecture and literature - I believe that this is a great time for the performing arts. That there’s nothing like a live experience. There’s nothing like the exchange that happens between the performer and the audience. It has the potential to impact change in the lives of the audience members. Screens are great, film is great, tv is great, but there’s nothing like live. 

Learn more: tapa.ca