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Features / June 2, 2016

New AGNS CEO: Audiences More Vital Than Architecture

Libraries have adapted to people’s needs better than a lot of museums have, says Nancy Noble, new director of Atlantic Canada's biggest art museum.

For a museum director—an occupation often marked, it seems, by a predilection for grand statements, canned talking points, and new-building fever—Nancy Noble seems refreshingly down to earth.

In a brief conversation phone conversation with Canadian Art earlier this week, the newly announced director and CEO of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia emphasized audiences, not architecture—and public libraries, not posh designers.

Noble’s ethos is demonstrated in her decade-plus leadership at the Museum of Vancouver, from which she announced her retirement earlier this year. That museum, though small in physical size, is beloved by many visitors for its unique and well-curated approach to its mandate—from its “Neon Vancouver / Ugly Vancouver” exhibition, to its highlighting of Japanese Canadian redress campaign artifacts, to its pub night reflecting on Expo 86’s obsession with transportation, complete with a Gamelan band.

Here is a condensed version of that telephone conversation.

Leah Sandals: It’s a big move from Vancouver to Halifax. What prompted it?

Nancy Noble: I had actually decided to leave the Museum of Vancouver before I was even approached. I’ve been here 10 and a half years, and I feel like I have come to the end of what I could contribute to the museum, and had planned to leave at the end of July.

So this opportunity came up, and it got more and more interesting. I’m excited about it. I’ve lived all over and I just kind of embrace a wherever I live—and I have never lived in the Maritimes or Eastern Canada.

LS: The Museum of Vancouver is extremely local-specific in its programming. What can you transfer from that experience to Halifax and Nova Scotia?

NN: I think that the functions of a museum and a gallery are the same anywhere, really—even while the topics may be different, and the subject matter may be different.

When I first came to Vancouver, I was not an expert on [Vancouver]. I think my skills are transferable because of the way galleries and museums function in any community they are in.

I mean, you are right in the sense of the city of Vancouver is a very defined kind of geographical place, where a province is larger and more challenging [to represent].

But I think that anywhere you have audiences you are serving, and you need to think hard about how you are doing that, how you are engaging—regardless of what you are engaging them with.

LS: So you feel the skills are transferable from one museum to another.

NN: Really, there needs to be a consideration of what a museum should be like. What are we trying to accomplish with these large, publicly funded institutions? And with the community?

I think I’ve tried to push the boundaries on those questions, and I think that is transferable to any city and any different kind of museum.

For me, it is about transferring my knowledge, and the skill I have to create something different and more engaging.

LS: Do you have any thoughts about the term “21st-century museum”? I feel like I hear and read it everywhere from museum directors. Was there some kind of memo that went out?

NN: Everyone has been talking about this forever, and I think people should be taking risks and doing more.

You know, museums should play a really important conservation role, especially with collections, and the AGNS has a great collection, and you need to preserve that.

But people communicate differently now, and they spend their leisure time differently. And it’s their gallery, not mine. So how do they want that to be reflected in the gallery and museum?

I think libraries have adapted to the way people need to use them a lot better, in many cases, than museums have.

So we have to look really seriously at what we can do as public institutions to service our audiences. And I think some museums do it better than others. But it’s kind of a risky proposition, sometimes, to change what you’ve always done.

LS: So what do you look forward to doing first?

NN: Well, I’m not there yet—and I’m not finished my job here [in Vancouver].

I think the [AGNS] has some interesting challenges—its building is one of its big challenges, and everyone talks about a new building. But I think first you need to ask: What do you want to accomplish? What does your programming look like?

Because a building is just a building—and I don’t think that a new building can’t be part of a right approach, but I think first you need to ask, What role are we going to play in the community of Halifax? What role will we play in the rest of the province? How does your building support that?

I think the gallery already does some really great programming and has a really great curatorial staff—so I think my first thing will be getting to know it better.

LS: Vancouver is Canada’s best-known art city internationally. Halifax does have some international art profile, but it’s mostly in a historical sense, due to the 1960s/1970s NSCAD heyday. How do you navigate this difference?

NN: Well I think it’s a different mandate, and a different city.

East of Montreal, Halifax has the largest art museum in Canada, and it is a significant institution in Eastern Canada in general. And I think it can play a larger role in a more global world—especially if you look at the East Coast and the population on the eastern seaboard.

I think it’s really about determining what you want to accomplish, and then making that happen. I don’t think it [Halifax] has to be a Vancouver. I think different cities play different roles in the art world and in what they support as public galleries. So I think we have to ask the right questions and determine what we want to accomplish.

LS: You’ve lived in various places. Could you recap those for readers who are interested?

NN: I grew up in Saskatchewan. I’m from Saskatoon, really, but I was in England and Winnipeg and Regina and a lot of places, mostly in the West.

I think there are a lot of similarities, actually, between Maritimers and prairie people. There is a friendliness. I think maybe it has to do with weather and landscape and hardship!

LS: I loved my time in Halifax at NSCAD, myself, and did find it very friendly—but there, I also became aware of the “come from away” label, too, which seems particular to the Atlantic provinces.

NN: I know—I’ve been warned of that, actually. But I’ve lived in a lot of places. I think Nova Scotia has an interesting food culture, and it’s got a whole new craft beer industry—there’s a lot to explore. I did the same thing when I came to Vancouver.

Really, there’s so much potential at the gallery and in its city, so many interesting things that are happening. In Halifax right now, there is actually a building boom, and shipbuilding is coming back to the city.

So I think it’s a prime time to do a little bit of a rethink about the gallery and what it can accomplish, and then go for it. I think there’s lots of potential.

Nancy Noble will begin her new role as director and CEO of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia on September 12.

Leah Sandals

Leah Sandals is a writer and editor based in Toronto. Her arts journalism has appeared in the Toronto Star, National Post and Globe and Mail, among other publications, and her creative work has been published in Prism, Room and Freefall. She can be reached via