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Features / March 31, 2016

New ROM Director: Art as Well as Dinosaurs

The Royal Ontario Museum is not known as an art-focused organization, but this is poised to change with new director Josh Basseches.

Only three months into 2016, and already the year has seen high-level staff changes at every large Toronto art institution: Stephan Jost will take over as director and CEO at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Chantal Pontbriand has been releasing her plans as the leader of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Toronto-Canada, Carolin Köchling is now helming the curatorial department at the Power Plant.

And, as of this week, the Royal Ontario Museum joins these institution’s ranks with the instalment of new director and CEO Josh Basseches, who began his first official day at the institution earlier this week.

The ROM is not as closely associated with the visual arts as the other organizations. What is the role of art at the museum currently—an occasional blockbuster? A slight afterthought? But this may change under Basseches’s influence.

The upcoming art-related exhibitions, including a show of Dale Chihuly’s glass sculptures (travelling from the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, where it garnered a record-breaking 277,051 visitors), were programmed without Basseches’s input, but the new director emphasized a commitment to the visual arts when speaking with Canadian Art last week.

“For any institution that wants to play a part in people’s lives, contemporary art plays a role,” he said.

The new ROM CEO knows natural history, but loves art.

Coming from the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, Basseches’s work history covers a wide range of terrain. He holds an MBA from Harvard, and has worked at various museums and at a non-profit management-consulting firm.

“I spent a number of years leading the Harvard Museum of Natural History, but most of my personal work and my scholarship and my graduate work is actually in the history of art and architecture,” Basseches says. 

He’s currently a PhD candidate in the history of art and architecture department of Boston University.

“My focus has been on 19th- and 20th-century art. That’s the area of my greatest interest, although I continue into the contemporary field, and I’ve done a lot of work with American art, but I’ve looked quite actively at international exchange,” Basseches said. “A lot of my own personal writing and thinking has been about the relationship between particularly American art and the art of Europe, the art of France.”

His interest in international exchange and contemporary art were recently highlighted in an exhibition he curated, “Alchemy of the Soul: Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons,” that’s currently on view at the Peabody Essex Museum.

“There are seven extraordinary, large-scale glass sculptures she created that represent ghosts of the Cuban sugar trade and she’s trying to look very clearly at issues that relate to the historic sugar and rum industries…. Those kinds of questions, about the global exchange of art, about the transit of art, about the relationship between different traditions…are very interesting to me.”

Can the ROM offer something other art institutions can’t?

While the ROM isn’t usually considered as closely aligned with the visual arts as other institutions with the city, Basseches believes that the breadth of its programming and collections could allow for a very different type of engagement with art—one contextualized within its diverse holdings.

“One of the things I do look forward to is thinking about the ROM as really quite a singular institution, because the ROM is one of the few great encyclopedic museums,” Basseches says.

“We really cut across art, culture and nature, and there are very few great museums in North America, at least, that do that. And that’s where I think a lot of potential lies.

“What has been the impact of, say, climate change on artistic practice? How are artists reflecting it, whether it’s loss of sea ice or other sorts of global changes? What impact does this have on a more cultural level, as well? These are a constellation of issues that I think are both relevant, and that the ROM is uniquely situated to address.”

Approaches to art display may change at the ROM—a positive development for those who have complained about the Crystal.

With its slanting walls, Daniel Libeskind’s Crystal addition, opened in 2007, can offer an awkward space for installing art.

“The whole notion of display and display strategies, and creating a very compelling visitor experience, are very near and dear to me, and are issues that I care a lot about. I do think that I will look forward to getting here and thinking about the optimal uses of the spaces, and how we go about our approaches to display.

“It’s a little bit too soon for me to say what those are going to look like or how the Crystal does or doesn’t work, but the issue is something that I look forward to looking into with my colleagues here.

“My sense is that there will be some very good ways that we can enhance the use of the space.”

Contemporary-art programming at the ROM may take different forms—including interventions into historical collections.

While contemporary-art exhibitions have been programmed at the ROM—including large showings of Douglas Coupland’s and El Anatsui’s work—future programming may move away from the more traditional solo exhibition to include interventions into the ROM’s other holdings.

“Contemporary art will have an important role here. It may be in the form of what might be called interventions in more historically oriented material,” said Basseches.

“I think the juxtaposition of the historic and the contemporary can be very evocative if done well, and can lead people to ask interesting questions that only having chronological display can make it harder to do.”

Expect to see improved digital strategies around art within the museum.

Beyond building on interventions into the historic holdings, Basseches suggests that the additional of digital strategies throughout the museum could also help highlight particular aspects of the collection, such as art.

“Digital strategies can be a vehicle for creating a thread through a very large institution that may have been harder to do with more traditional interpretive approaches,” he said.

“For instance, if you were to come to the museum, and you had a particular interest in either a certain subject matter or art from a certain period, or, say, art that relates to the water, one of the things that a digital strategy could provide is a way for you to experience being guided through a larger institution in relation to your preferences.

“That kind of thinking about threads that run throughout an institution, and ways to create both relationships and coherence, is something that I will be looking at.”

Watch for changes to the museum’s opening hours, physical layout and ticketing strategies as they try to engage audiences for longer periods of time, and more often.

While Basseches’s wider vision for turning the ROM into a “21st-century museum” will take some time to implement, the museum is already at work on a series of shorter-term alterations.

One goal is to figure out how to be “even more welcoming on the inside and outside…over the next three, four, five years,” says Basseches. Potential changes include the addition of an outdoor performance space, a move for the museum’s restaurant, changes to the Hyacinth Gloria Chen Crystal Court and a more publicly accessible first floor.

These alterations, for Basseches, could potentially be part of a wider change that sees the ROM become a space where people come and go at a range of hours.

“I want to move away from the transactional notion of: you buy a ticket, you have a visit and then you leave. I want to more toward a notion of: I can come, I can go, I can spend time, I can have repeat experiences at the museum.

“It’s a part of life so that people come away not saying, ‘I made a visit to the ROM,’ but, ‘I spent a day at my museum.’”