Skip to content

May we suggest

Features / March 8, 2016

What’s the Future of Canada’s Museums?

Ten leaders of Canada’s art-focused museums share their vision for the future of these institutions, and discuss how we get there.
A rendering of the Audain Art Museum in Whistler, which opens to the public on March 12, 2016. Photo: Patkau Architects. A rendering of the Audain Art Museum in Whistler, which opens to the public on March 12, 2016. Photo: Patkau Architects.

The arts sector is feeling optimistic. After a decade spent toiling under the shadow of Stephen Harper, many Canadian cultural workers are buoyed by the change of government—and the significant spending promises that propelled Justin Trudeau to power. Salivating at the prospect of a brighter future, arts organizations are ready to dust off the dreams that were shelved during the dark days of austerity.

That optimism, however, is tempered by the oil-thick cynicism that pools around lofty electoral campaign promises. But more critically, our initial elation is being dragged down by the country’s sinking economic fortunes. Canada is sitting in a slump. And with the Bank of Canada recently downgrading its economic growth outlook for 2016 to 1.4 percent, the forecast is as sunny as a Vancouver winter.

Despite our collective economic woes, the country’s art museums are looking ahead to the future. Several of them have recently completed major infrastructure projects, while others are unveiling ambitious plans of their own. I asked leaders from 10 art-focused museums across the country (including, full disclosure, my own director at the Museum of Anthropology at UBC) to share their vision for the future of museums in Canada, and to chime in on how they think we will get there.

Kathleen S. Bartels, director of the Vancouver Art Gallery

Museums of the future must continue to be places that celebrate their communities, engage with their audiences and be a driving force in strengthening the cultural life of their city, province and country. They must also keep playing an instrumental role in promoting continuous learning through art, creativity and innovation, and be a non-hierarchical space where people from all backgrounds come together to be inspired and challenged by their experiences with art.

As public institutions, we must remain relevant in our communities. We will need to continue pushing boundaries and deliver diverse exhibitions and public programs that showcase outstanding local, national and international artistic talents and reflect a wide range of perspectives, all the while engaging with and challenging our audiences of all ages in meaningful ways.

Museums are and will continue to be a vital and dynamic part of the public realm and serve as places for discourse, intellectual exploration and community building. They will be centres of activity, offering people spaces not only for contemplation, but also for creativity, education and active participation—before, during and after their visit.

Technology will play an increasingly major role in designing the overall museum experience. It will expand the way audiences learn about art and culture. Using digital tools and platforms, we will create interactive journeys where visitors engage in open dialogues with us and learn in collaborative ways. At the same time the direct, immersive experience with art and museum environments will remain important.

We, the Vancouver Art Gallery, are excited about the future. We are building a new museum that will allow us to more significantly contribute to a thriving cultural and civic ecology, to meet the needs of our audiences in multifaceted ways, while fundamentally supporting our commitment to artists and to art education. Our main goal now and in the future is to provide the citizens of Vancouver and BC, and all who visit, with an amazing experience of art that is unique in the world and can only happen here.

Judy Koke, Richard and Elizabeth Currie chief, public programming and learning at the Art Gallery of Ontario

The future of art museums depends on how we respond to the key issues facing us today; namely issues of audience relevance, integration into a digital world, and financial sustainability. These are not three separate issues; rather, they all point to changing demographics and cultural realities.

Most fundamentally, the relationship between a museum and its communities is undergoing a central shift. Museums have historically been asked to (and perhaps even revelled in) a paternalistic, expert stance. Being the holders of important objects and knowledge, the museum has spoken from a position of authority, disseminating information it deems as important for the improvement of a receiving public. It was a one-way direction of ideas out of the museum

However, today’s ubiquitous availability of information and opinions—combined with the force of social media, a desire for participation and a changing understanding of how learning happens—means this model is outdated. Audiences continue to desire and respect expertise; in fact, they seek it. However, today’s audiences and consumers understand and value multiple and discordant perspectives (e.g. Eastern vs. Western health approaches).

Beginning with opportunities for visitors to comment on their experiences, museums are slowly moving to a place of shared authority. This may include inviting community members to serve on advisory committees, including outside voices and narratives on art labels, and in some cases, inviting the public to curate specific aspects of the visitor experience.

These efforts to listen—to value community wisdom and perspectives and to create interactive experiences—have resulted in a more reciprocal relationship between the museum and its audience. It is the shift to working “with” audiences, rather than “for” them, and understanding their interests and passions as much as we hope they understand ours, that will shape the future path for successful, sustainable art museums.

Marc Mayer, director and CEO of the National Gallery of Canada

In the future, the arts will play a central role in most people’s lives, and art museums will adapt nimbly to serve their growing needs. Although the commercial cultural industries—profitable partner enterprises for art museums—will still dominate as purveyors of cultural experiences, the high artistic standards and advanced ethos of art museums, with their broad spectrum of services and their rich usefulness to society, will make them indispensable to a meaningful life.

Art museums will become larger and more complex organizations, deriving their funding mostly from licensing and fees-for-service, and supported by dynamic, profit-driven arms. Nevertheless, the autonomy and non-profit mission of the museum will be protected from these entrepreneurial arms by “Chinese wall” governance structures.

Art museums will expand their role as public convening spaces for the intellectually ambitious and aesthetically adventurous. In a post-materialistic age, however, they will accumulate increasingly diverse material and cultural assets for presentation in ever more inventive arrangements in their galleries and on digital platforms, but also license works for virtual or on-demand reproduction.

The relationship between museums and artists will evolve within the creative economy as the role of the artist expands. Art museums will become “talent brokers” for the services of artist-consultants who will advise businesses, governments, institutions, individuals and especially the robust cultural industries. Art museums will act as agents for the commissioning of works by “object-makers,” especially in the booming field of public art, so vital in a more peaceful and interconnected age in which the humanities will play a key role in civic life.

Indeed, after many years of debased public discourse, education administrators will eventually realize the error of neglecting the humanities and privileging science as the default educational paradigm. This reform will benefit art museums tremendously.

Nathalie Bondil, director and chief curator of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

During the recent federal election campaign, some commentators lamented the lack of debate on the question of culture, even though this issue was central to discussions on the wearing of the niqab during citizenship ceremonies. Culture is at the heart of all debates on integrating the multicultural model into our new intercultural world, and yet culture averages to a mere one per cent of public spending.

Although supporting artists and art history is at the core of the museum’s mission, more is required. I have a view to redefining the role of the art museum in society. It is my manifesto for a humanist museum:

1. Rethinking the relevance of the institution means asking whether a fine arts museum should question, discuss and engage in the important issues of its day. Rather than being merely a strongbox holding a capital of artworks, the museum should pursue broader values, and not only in the context of specific exhibitions.

2. Rethinking the collections means being willing to throw the doors of our fine arts museum wide open to other disciplines. Looking beyond their place in art history, the works should be freed in order to touch on all fields of knowledge, to spark frank discussion and to bring latent ideas out into the open.

3. Rethinking the nature of our public means, above all else, to consider our visitors as living, experiential beings. Our need for “beauty,” or at least for aesthetic sentiment, is physiological, and not just philosophical or cultural. A museum is a school for the senses, where we can connect with our emotional side.

4. Rethinking the context means establishing creative partnerships with experts in other fields, schools, organizations, associations, institutes and universities, not in competition but in co-evolution.

We must now think about art as a force for social cohesion and individual well-being. I am convinced that in the 21st century, culture will be to health what sports were in the 20th century. Today, doctors prescribe exercise; tomorrow, they may prescribe a visit to a museum or a concert. I am convinced that art does one good.

Anthony Shelton, director of the Museum of Anthropology at UBC

Neither temples nor forums, museums of the future should be part of the fundamental circuitry that connect communities, that sculpt appreciation of different ways of wondering the world, and that offer object lessons in cultural literacy and humour in support of a just and open society. Their activities should extend outside of their headquarters to establish cultural corridors and hubs that integrate provinces, cities and regions.

Museums could provide the infrastructure to repeatedly reimagine sciences and fictions and wire these through the institutions, which frame our lives. Let them surprise, delight and astonish us by the myriad connections and meanings and sensations they enjoin; let them dance between disciplines, eschewing old institutional and academic compartmentalizations and returning the imaginative wholeness of human experiences, creativities, beliefs and knowledges to help banish our modern solitudes.

New technologies have enabled us to envision more complex versions of the world than those available to any previous generation. We can view and compare separate events simultaneously; we can drill into their pasts and project them into the future to create different consciousnesses of history and personal identity. Museum presentations can never again be simpler than the potential conveyed through technologies. What makes museums different from technology, though, is that their presentations are curated. The future of museums is intimately connected to the future of curatorship.

To realize this potential in Canada we need to move away from a federal finance model that privileges a few national museums far removed from the rest of us. Museum funding needs to be re-embedded across our cities and provinces and old vested interests and bankrupt philosophies that divide art galleries and museums need to be breached to encourage interdisciplinary, pluriculturalism, and more inclusive arts and histories. Dare we become the constellations that light Canada’s multitudinous and intercultural firmament?

Gregory Burke, executive director/CEO of the Remai Modern Art Gallery of Saskatchewan

Public art museums are possibly facing the greatest forces of change since the storming of the Louvre. Large art museums in major metropolitan centres are getting bigger and even franchising globally, while many others are struggling. Some are considering a move further into the field of entertainment, a shift fraught with challenges and the risk of reduced public funding. Others are holding fast to their traditional role of being keepers of a public art collection. However, for some time, mainstream museums have been coming to terms with the fact that their collecting practices and the ways they have interpreted art history have not fairly represented First Nations, women and many other societal groups.

The art museum’s biggest challenge now is how to adapt to the massive changes resulting from the continuing aftershocks of colonization, climate change, globalization and technological advances. The accelerated production, dissemination and increasing control of information is changing the world in ways we are yet to comprehend. The art museum of the future needs to provide a hub to begin to map these changes and their impacts.

The relevancy of the art museum depends on its response. They should not only be places of quiet reflection but should also offer tools, spaces and platforms for the active engagement of disparate communities. They will define their constituencies less as consumers and more as users and active participants in the artistic process. Art museums will increasingly move away from valuing the art object for its own sake toward positioning the artwork as multiform and as a point in a continuum of exchange between the artist, audience and wider community. The invitation to join in that exchange will challenge the traditional passive role of the viewer and will establish the art museum as a leading forum for considering and debating the development of culture and society.

Art museums need to be bold, stay close to artists and promote art’s unique role in leading public discourse.

Line Ouellet, director and chief curator of the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec

The MNBAQ’s new museum complex, opening its doors in summer 2016, embodies our vision of the future. Our watchword was to make the new MNBAQ not only a standard for Québec art and a memorable exhibition venue, but also a true living space, where you can have a coffee or treat yourself to a nice lunch, hold business meetings, get married, browse books, take part in a discussion, attend a lecture or simply contemplate your favourite work of art.

What’s more, museums are at the heart of the urban experience. Often the epicentre of an arts district, like the new MNBAQ, a museum generates urban development focused on the community’s quality of life, high-quality architecture and urban planning which promotes walking, active modes of transportation and public transit.

The decline of government support for years, however, has created a state of chronic underfunding for various institutions. Continuing poor levels of private-sector patronage, especially in Québec, present a similar challenge. In this respect, funding for the new MNBAQ, with 24 percent coming from donations, is both an exception and an example. Finally, the reduced presence online of Canadian cultural content, particularly in French, is also an issue, one that the government of Québec is tackling with its Digital Culture Plan.

We need to make museums’ voices heard loud and clear in their communities. Because of their vitality and visibility, museums are essential elements within their communities not only as cultural agents, but also as social and economic agents. Acting as connectors between citizens and art, art and the city, tourists and culture, work and pleasure, art and health, and business and creation, museums are a catalyst for realizing great dreams.

Sarah Fillmore, chief curator of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia

Museums must be centres for discovery, learning, contemplation and discourse. They should support multiple communities, be flexible, responsive and reflective. They should challenge and comfort, spark creativity and pique interest. They should incite more questions rather than answer questions. They must uphold standards, help generate scholarship and play a direct part in writing our history.

Major obstacles include funding resources and dwindling audiences. In addressing these challenges, museums must be nimble in their ways of responding to donors, audiences and opportunities. They must better reflect the reality around them through innovative and relevant programming, and with multi-layered approaches.

To truly be a part of a community, they must be rooted within it in a number of key ways. Museums must seek ways to be seen as indispensable resources through vocal advocacy to constituents, and by promoting and serving the various aspects of their communities, from the artistic to education, health, youth and beyond, in order to foster tangible change and growth.

Stephen Borys, director and CEO of the Winnipeg Art Gallery

The Winnipeg Art Gallery houses the world’s largest collection of contemporary Inuit art, and to celebrate the art and to honour the people who have created these works the WAG is creating an Inuit Art Centre (IAC). It will be a bridge, enabling peoples from the North and South to meet, learn and work together. Defined by Indigenous principles, the IAC will be a transformative place led by the images and stories from the art, people and land.

As we develop the plans for the IAC, I am constantly thinking about the idea of the museum; not just what it looks like, but how it feels, communicates and functions. Through the program and stakeholder development, architectural design and the capital campaign, I have been inspired and challenged to reconsider the template for the museum in the 21st century.

The new museum is still a building, but its infrastructure is much greater than any form or edifice. Advancing beyond but not neglecting the age-old tasks of collecting, preserving and exhibiting, the new museum is about dialogue, exploration and reconciliation. Learning and advancement contribute to this enterprise but these are augmented by enrichment, enjoyment and the overall pursuit of health and well-being through art and culture. The museum reflects, responds to, and is the community.

The museum is a collection of objects, ideas and people reflecting cultures and stories that look back and ahead. It is a place where the acts of invitation, welcome and engagement thrive, enabling the museum to be relevant, impactful and sustainable. The value proposition may begin with the art and the art makers, but it has expanded to reflect multiple voices and agendas in the sectors that have come to define and celebrate contemporary cultural thought.

Art is a living and dynamic force in the world capable of imparting, responding to and shaping ideas and perspectives. And in this vibrant, global exchange we call cultural democracy, the museum is the forum.

Suzanne E. Greening, executive director of the Audain Art Museum

The Audain Art Museum is not located in a large metropolitan centre, but rather in a small mountain resort community. Guests have traditionally come to Whistler for winter sports, but the resort has expanded its offerings to include summer activities and has become a centre for conferences, festivals and events.

Starting up a new art facility, which has no operational or programming history, is quite an undertaking. In determining what we do, we can’t state, “We’ve always done it that way; it’s been done before and doesn’t work; or it’s never been done before.” We have a clean slate to work with, which in itself is daunting.

What will our future look like? We need to act in the best interest of being stewards for our collection and for the art that is temporarily on display. We need to be relevant to visitors—especially a large national and international base. How and what do we need to do to bring them off the snowy mountains and trails into the museum? How do we relate to children so that they have easy access to art that will lead to appreciation and a deep lifetime relationship with it? We are addressing some of these items by being open late two nights a week and by providing free access to youth 16 and under.

Self-generated revenue and financial support for museums will continue to be an issue for most of us. There needs to be a heightened recognition of the importance of museums in society and increases in levels of support from all levels of government, corporations and donors. We face other challenges: changing demographics, less discretionary spending by individuals and families, added reliance on volunteers to replace lost paid positions, and increases in operating costs.

I believe that the successful future of our own particular institutions relates to relevancy and accessibility to the publics that we serve. What will be essential to achieving this is ongoing and increasing financial support and institutional innovation.

Rob Maguire is a freelance writer, as well as marketing and communications manager at the Museum of Anthropology at UBC in Vancouver. He tweets at @RobMaguire.