A New Conference, The Rolling Stones and the Future of Art: An interview with David Marskell

Montreal museums are finally opened, though at limited capacity, and who’s to say for how long. Still, I’m glad to be back at the MBAM, watching the sunlight filter in, gazing at Leo’s mural, hand over his heart, warm smile in his eyes as he stares back. Not all the pavillions are open, and I’m not a Riopelle fan, but I’m here to see everything I can.

The pandemic has provided laser focus of what’s important to me via the things I missed, as well as the creature comforts I found a way maintain (the espresso machine was a great choice, and if you need to know where to buy incense when you can barely buy basics, I know that too). Museums are one of my happy places, and while I took a pop art MOOC, and AR’d countless artworks into my living room (thanks, Google Arts & Culture), none of it was the same as being there.

Based on the response to this round of reopenings, I wasn’t the only one who missed in person visits. The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts has been selling out weekends since reopening (albeit at 25% capacity), and they’ve even added extra weekday hours. The Musée d’Art Contemporare has sold over 500 memberships since restrictions eased, but it isn’t likely to be enough in the grand scheme.

A May 2020 survey by the International Council of Museums found 13% of global museums, including 10% of North American museums, were forecasted to close.

“Museums are in crisis, and that was before the pandemic. There were issues at some of these major museums with the heads of various organizations […] for various reasons, being unceremoniously let go, and so there’s something systemic there. And in my mind, and I as an individual, I’m always looking for change. If it’s not broke, break it, and maybe put it back together the way it was, but you should always be looking at, is there a better way of doing things.”

I’m on the phone with David Marskell, and as CEO of Kitchener’s THEMUSEUM, he has some experience with reimagining and reinventing. The space itself has gone through its own transformations to become what it is today. Originally a department store, it became the Waterloo Regional Children’s Museum in 2003, which didn’t meet expectations. David was brought in to fix what was broken, and instead built a new vision, opening THEMUSEUM in 2010.

” We had the opportunity to be whatever we wanted to be, but we didn’t have a collection. So we realized […] we didn’t want to be pigeonholed, and we could be very quick to move to something that was topical of the day and so on. So, with tongue firmly planted in cheek, we called ourselves THEMUSEUM. One word uppercase without even the collection.”

With interactive art, an all ages MakerSpace, and audio experiences, THEMUSEUM isn’t interested in whispering corridors or pretension, but rather the hands on immersive experience of Arts. David tells me that there’s nothing comparable in North America right now, and I’m jealous, because I want one in Montreal.

Much like THEMUSEUM itself, The MakerSpace is a dynamic and organic creation; an idea and space that grew to fill the needs of the community, proving that despite the distractions of the digital age, necessity remains the mother of invention.

“We began creating it with younger people in mind, but very quickly, seniors came and said ‘hey, I want to know about 3D printing, […] and by the way, I can be a mentor and help volunteers show other people how to solder, or use the sewing machine’. And then we’d get the millennials who would show up with their doorknob, trying to put it together and they don’t know how to use a screwdriver, simple little things like that.”

The MakerSpace even hosts a beer night, an inadvertent reminder that intergenerational skill sharing is also a social interaction we’ve been neglecting for too long. You can learn an awful lot over a beer with the right company.

The future is in progress, and art — both how we do it, and view it — is evolving. All this makes it the perfect time for the inaugural Museums/Musées Canada Conference, and THEMUSEUM the perfect collaborator.

In the context of the conference, the umbrella term “museum” is a broad one, and rightly so. The conference will include leaders and workers from galleries, science and technology centers, aquariums, zoos, and traditional museums from across Canada. With an eye toward networking, honest dialogue, and learning from one another, the conference aims to reimagine the concept of such gatherings before they even discover what they can envision as a group.

This year’s AltCon, the Alternative Conference for Emerging Professionals, will be a part of the 2022 Museums/Musées Canada Conference. AltCon started four years ago as a way to bring together up-and-coming industry professionals who are all too often shut out of prohibitively expensive and intentionally exclusive conferences.

Part of The Rolling Stones UNZIPPED

THEMUSEUM is also hosting the only Canadian date for The Rolling Stones UNZIPPED, the first international exhibition by and about the band and their nearly six decades of rockin’n’rollin.

The timing provides an opportunity for the exhibit itself to become part of the conference, an ideal learning tool to explore how it was curated, and the intricacies that go into hosting a travelling, multi-media exhibition.

What happens after the conference, and what will it mean for the future of the industry? David wisely, and humbly doesn’t know.

“I’m trying to stop everybody else telling me the outcome. I don’t know it, and nobody should know it. […] As a white male of a certain age, I don’t want to be the head of whatever ends up if something more formal comes of this. I shouldn’t be the head of this, somebody else should be the head of this. I’m happy to be the catalyst, and use the Rolling Stones exhibition and AltCon to host this national dialogue, but if there is a board, if there is a new entity, it needs to reflect Canada and it shouldn’t be people that look like me.”

Expanding on that point, he says:

“If you put 10 people under 35 (and I’m just picking that number) to come up with programs for diversity, equity and inclusion, the output would be much different than if you put 10 people that look like me in a room and came up with that.”

Speculating on the future of art itself might be easier. When pandemic restrictions forced every industry and individual to reimagine how they do the things they once took for granted, and while the process has been disorienting, there are bright spots where the results have proven innovative.

(When asked about the MAC’s virtual Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything exhibit, David said he thought they did a marvelous job with terrific execution, and I felt unduly proud as a Montrealer who had nothing to do with it.)

THEMUSEUM also tried some new tricks, and maybe even surprised itself.

“We did drive thrus with dinosaurs, robotic dinosaurs back around Thanksgiving for three weeks, And we attracted, you know, pandemic stressed families in the safety of their cars, and we drove half of our annual attendance in three weeks. Why didn’t, we think of that? Why did we have to wait for pandemic to think of that?”

While he doesn’t want to lead whatever comes next, David does have some predictions: the future of art will be immersive, interactive, and yes, like it or not, Instagrammable.

“I think that with all respect to, you know, art that hangs on a wall and you know the traditional types of things that you would see in a museum and symphony and things like that. I think young people are gravitating and showing that you have to be emotional, you have to be Instagrammable.”

Whatever it becomes, I can’t wait to see it.

Featured Image: The Markerspace (part of THEMUSEUM)

Museums/Musées Canada Leadership Conference is January 16 & 17, 2022

AltCon is January 16 – 18, 2022

Travelling Exhibition Summit January 17 – 19, 2022

Rolling Stones Unzipped arrives at THEMUSEUM on November 30, tickets on sale now

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