Many thanks for your invitation to speak today. I feel honoured to be here and share my thoughts.
I thought it would be useful to provide some biographical information. I was born in Toronto and completed an undergraduate degree in fine arts. I moved to the U.K. in the 1990s to complete a graduate degree in art history at the University of Leeds, and subsequently held management and leadership positions in Vancouver, at Tate Gallery in London for eight years, and most recently at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, before returning to Canada to take on the role of executive director and CEO of the Museum of Contemporary Art Toronto Canada.
As many of you may know, MOCA will soon open a new five-storey space to the public in an industrial heritage building with over 55,000 square feet of exhibition, public programs, learning, and office space. The museum will boast a full-time permanent staff of 20 and an annual operating budget of $8 million.
My career migration and breadth of experience within different institutions across different disciplines, with international colleagues and in various countries, has shaped my sensibilities and I think made me an unusual hybrid in the museum world. Though my outlook may be viewed as progressive or even groundbreaking, I know that museum professionals around the world are attempting to understand a new world context for the 21st-century museum. There is a lot to think about.
I believe the experience of art, the inspiration, and the instigation that art provokes can serve as a way for people to understand themselves and the world. I think contemporary art and artists ask hard questions and provoke audiences to think and imagine in new and different ways, with more curiosity and, we hope, with more civility.
Museums are the vestibules where an exchange between art, artists, and visitors happen. Our job as professionals really is to create relevant spaces that ensure that museums reflect the world we're in and the diversity and plurality.
At the moment, I'd suggest that museums are in trouble, because they aren't nimble enough to reimagine themselves. They hold too much currency in their expertise and thus purport to be authorities on cultural relevancy. I believe they either haven't considered how the world has changed around them or they don't know how to evolve with these changes. It's worth highlighting that many small and mid-sized museums are slow to change.
For me, the question of relevancy has been top of mind for decades, and it's fairly exciting. The need for museums to consider this has been formative in many best practices in the world. I think it's worth considering, and asking the question in our own context, how museums can become more relevant in the 21st century for Canadians.
I'd like to suggest first that we have to consider the audience, the public. Most large-scale and mid-sized museums are struggling to retain audiences and attract a younger visitor base. The visitor demographic of most museums is predominantly white and mature, at least in the visual arts, not to mention the demographics of the staff, the board, and the individual donor base. In all of these cases, numbers and support are dwindling. If we don't fulfill a cultural contract that demands we serve audiences beyond traditional patrons, our continued relevance into this century will be seriously at risk because it's not reflective of the plural and diverse cultural practices or of the diverse communities we serve.
According to the 2017 “Culture Track” study, an initiative of the U.S.-based consultancy company LaPlaca Cohen—which I know you've heard about—audiences no longer distinguish between high and low culture. For the cultural consumer, going to a street fair is of equal value to attending an opera. The visitor measures a successful experience by way of learning, doing something new, finding enjoyment and fun, and being socially engaged. Museums that uphold an idea that their sole responsibility is to be the singular and notable custodians of objects and those that believe that theirs is a special and unique position are potentially out of step with the contemporary public.
I believe the challenge for museums is figuring out how to differentiate an experience from other opportunities, to do this with integrity, and to figure out how best to connect art and ideas with interests and ambitions of relevant communities in the world. At MOCA we aim to be a listening museum, a welcoming place in which we will seek a reciprocal relationship with our community, public, and the world, and we are committed to ongoing dialogue through everything we do. Museums need to listen.
Twenty years ago, the Harvard Business Review ran an article entitled “How the Arts Can Prosper Through Strategic Collaborations”. The piece declared,
The arts have been hard hit by shrinking audiences and rising debt. Cuts in government funding have become severe, and many sources of funding....have been earmarking grants for specific programs so that less is available for general operating budgets.
This looked specifically at the U.S., yet the sentiment could be relevant today in Canada. Arts and cultural organizations around the world have to up their game when it comes to forging collaborations with business, industry, and tech companies. They need to seek engaging and relevant visitor experience and generate much-needed revenue.
As our industry seeks to create relevancy and connect with audiences, it would benefit us immeasurably to have the government play a role in facilitating collaborations between culture and the private sector with a mind to sharing best practices. These practices could include technological advances, expertise in customer experience strategy, research intelligence, consumer psychology, and so forth.
A dynamic example of such collaboration is one that the Cooper Hewitt design museum launched in 2014 in New York. It was an interactive pen that allowed visitors to design new projects in response to the permanent collection and to contribute this work to an ongoing archive. It was created in partnership with Hewlett Packard, Local Projects, and Sistelnetworks, a company leading in wireless technology. The federal government could nurture such partnerships by building cross-disciplinary networks in leading the charge to collect data on new and best practice, best-in-class research.
I'm interested in how the government might lead a national conversation about culture and economic growth. A very well-documented example is the U.K.'s New Labour party launch of the “Cool Britannia” brand in the nineties. This was an interesting model of a campaign that celebrated a modern public face for Britain with a new kind of industry and workforce. Living in London at the time, I think it was seen as a chance to redefine what the economic future would be about. It was an attempt to reimagine England, not just as a place of factories and Fleet Street bankers but creative entrepreneurs from across society.
“Cool Britannia” fuelled the creative industries and increased prosperity. It turned once ordinary industrial cities like Manchester into cultural destinations, interconnected the arts and businesses, revitalized urban areas, and attracted skilled workers. Cultural Capital: The Rise and Fall of Creative Britain by Robert Hewison, published by Verso in 2014, is a great read and worth citing here.
Museums like MOCA are committed to generating and supporting Canadian content. Our role, as we nurture young artists and cultural producers, would be assisted by an ambassadorial international spotlight that advocates and underlines the unique qualities, benefits, ingenuity, talent, and plurality of Canadian culture on a global scale.
Finally, leadership and mentorship is a common theme across the many presentations you've heard to date, and is something that I feel would be beneficial to Canadians as well as to MOCA. To that end, there are two stellar leadership programs to be considered or looked at, and one has opportunities for Canadians. The U.K. Clore Leadership Programme aids the professional growth of museum professionals, and in the U.S., the Getty Leadership Institute, which I have completed, assists experienced top-level museum and cultural executives from around the world in becoming better leaders, with the aim of strengthening their own institutional capabilities as well as advancing the international museum field.
I also think there's an opportunity, as so much talent has migrated to Canada in recent years, for the government to initiate a formal mentorship program whereby directors from large to mid-sized museums, especially those who have gained experience elsewhere, are encouraged to partner with mentor colleagues from smaller institutions. Mentoring is a key element of programs like the Center for Curatorial Leadership in New York, and extends learning outside the classroom.
Towards the same notion is the subject of capacity building and philanthropy in Canada. Although they're a different history and system, we know that $373 billion is handed out by individuals, foundations, and businesses in the United States, and rates of giving are two to 20 times higher in the U.S.
From my years at MCA in Chicago, I developed an appreciation of the history of philanthropy in America, and the social and political traditions behind it. I think it would be advantageous for Canada to learn from this best practice, and I think professionals in mid-size museums could gain, and need to gain, more proficiency skills in donor cultivation.
Lastly, on the question of access, equity, and inclusion, it's a challenge, as we know, of deepening the talent and leadership pool within the Canadian museum sector. There's a small pipeline in this country. The challenge is also great, in that the museum profession does not represent the socio-economic and racial demographics of the country. As someone building a leading international contemporary art museum in Canada that hopes to lead with best practice, it's challenging to find the skills and industry expertise within the country. It's also challenging to build the team that reflects the diversity and plural voices of this country. An initiative that allows for the growth of mentorship and leadership, as well as helping to diversify the museum field in Canada to reflect the complexity and brilliance of this country, would be welcome.
I want to thank you for the invitation and this opportunity to share my thoughts.