The Museum of Vancouver is Canada’s largest civic museum that runs in partnership with the City of Vancouver. It stewards a collection of artifacts and belongings on behalf of the city to tell stories about Vancouver through material culture and digital content. Douglas Nelson’s guest is Mauro Vescera, the CEO at the Museum of Vancouver. In this episode, Douglas and Mauro discuss handling tensions within the organization, partnering and collaborating with other organizations within the social profit sector, and the museum’s response to the pandemic. Join in the conversation and discover how Mauro approaches the common challenges that social profits face within the context of art and storytelling.
Listen to the podcast here:
Museum Of Vancouver With Mauro Vescera
Our guest on the show is Mauro Vescera. He’s the Chief Executive Officer of the Museum of Vancouver. We’re pleased to have him on the show. Welcome, Mauro.
Thank you, Douglas. It’s my pleasure.
For those who aren’t familiar, who haven’t had the chance to be through the doors in the last months, tell us what is the Museum of Vancouver?
The Museum of Vancouver is Canada’s largest civic museum. It’s run in partnership with the City of Vancouver. We’re a registered charity. The organization is 126 years old. We steward a collection of artifacts and belongings on behalf of the city. Our relationship is symbiotic. The museum has four priority areas right now. Reconciliation which we’ve shifted to redress and decolonization, sustainability and environment, diversity and immigration and what we’re calling urban studies. What we do is tell stories about Vancouver through material culture. We’re integrating a lot of digital content as well. We take the material culture from the past, try to make it relevant to the present and also try to look into the future with our exhibitions, our public programming and our educational programming.The Museum of Vancouver wants to tell the story of the past, but also it also wants to shift it forward. Click To Tweet
We’re located out on the ancestral village of Sen̓ákw or what’s known also as Vanier Point. We have an interesting relationship with our three host nations because we do sit on this ancestral village. I don’t know if people know the story of Sen̓ákw but the village was a coastal Salish trading center that was raised by the settlers. All the inhabitants were put on a barge and floated to North Vancouver. Years later, the Squamish nation with the intervention of the Tsleil-Waututh and the Musqueam made a claim to the land in the ‘70s and were awarded 8 acres right beside us, near the Burrard Street Bridge, which is going to become the Sen̓ákw development.
We’re one of the first groups in the city to bring first nations representatives from the Musqueam, Tsleil-Waututh and Squamish communities onto our board. As we have this priority in Vancouver, our reconciliation and the museum, ironically, a colonial institution that has many belongings and artifacts in some cases taken from these communities is actively repatriating and trying to move the conversation forward. We have a series of exhibitions, in an operation here at Vanier for many years. Originally, it started out in the Carnegie Center at Hastings.
I want to spend a little time there on that issue of redress and decolonization. It’s a challenge for museums across North America and around the world dealing with the material culture, particularly indigenous material culture and how that changes how it’s presented now. With your board structure and your relationship with the city, you had a nexus of a lot of those issues. How do you manage those conversations or how do those conversations happen around your board table?
I’ve been here for a few years. This last pandemic year feels like ten. One of the first things we did or moved on was to bring the board relationship to make it more inclusive and to include that conversation in the intents and objectives of the museum. We have also indigenous staff, a program coordinator and a curator. Our next exhibition in collaboration with the three nations, telling the story of a place in a non–chronological way including knowledge holders, six from each community to develop the content of the exhibition. We want to tell the story of the past but also shift it forward. We hold about 15,000 belongings or treasures as the first nations have referred to them.
Many are Northwest Coast. We also have materials from the South Pacific in Africa. The museum evolved with all these Canadians collecting, coming and then donating. Our focus for the last years has been Vancouver artifacts and objects. As we repatriate some of the indigenous treasures, we are collecting contemporary work from those communities to show the evolution. We do also have 325 human or ancestral remains repatriating. Those are sensitive. People used to collect First Nations skeletons and bodies. It’s a bit macabre looking at some of the archives and some of the stories at this museum but that’s a real challenging thing to reconcile with the community. For us, it’s important to include the perspectives in the organization and shape it in a different way.
You’re right. The nexus is placed, the culture shift in the city and city reconciliation makes it an opportunity but one that is challenging and one where our protocol and relationship to the community is one where sometimes there are differences of opinions within or between first nations and we’re respectful of that. My mom used to say, “You have to let the food cook sometimes to make sure that people position.” In this case, a lot of the protocols are observed. Having First Nations staff and having a board committee has been helpful. We have a great relationship. We include them in all of our exhibitions, even if it isn’t an indigenous–themed exhibition because it’s a perspective. That part of the story as we tell the story of Vancouver has not been included in the past and needs to be integrated into the future.
There’s a lot of pressure, tension or intension on the part of a lot of cultural organizations in the area of redress and decolonization. One of the common themes that I’ve seen or heard from leaders is that there is often a progressive staff that is wanting to move quickly and a board that is wanting to let the food cook a little longer, to use your mother’s language. As the CEO, you’re in the middle of that. How do you manage that tension if in fact there is a tension at the Museum of Vancouver?
When I first came in, it seemed like a real opportunity to take it to the next level. I will say that the board was open to it. In fact, as we crafted the letter and moved it forward, that wasn’t an issue. For our board, they were well on that path. That said it is challenging because there are moments where the nations disagree and we’re in the middle. It’s about being patient and being flexible. We see our role with the community as interactive. A lot of arts organizations are doing interesting work with First Nations communities. One of the challenges we’ve noted is the capacity in those communities to handle the requests that are coming at them.
I’m not just talking about land acknowledgments but they want to be involved in our project, this and that project. There’s a lot of information. I think because of our relationship and the amount of work we do, we deepened it. It has been a benefit for us. I will note that the nations have said to us that they want the museum to be more proactive and they’re trying to move through the performative to do things for their community. Our board and staff have seen it as an opportunity. It can be challenging for organizations, particularly depending on where they sit and what their relationships are.
In the position you’re in, you’re being asked to be more proactive. You say, “Yes, of course.” What exactly should we be? How can we do that? It sounds like that balance of leading with the right intention and a healthy dose of patience is the way forward.
It is and because we have a reconciliation committee made up and one of our board members carries the hereditary name as chief of Sen̓ákw. Including them in our program development and having an indigenous team that leads this work has been helpful. We’re often working with rather than coming up with an idea and then trying to say, “Sign on.“ We learned that over the years and that’s where the patients come in. It will take a little bit of time. At the end of the day, you have something that’s far more inclusive and more respectful of the stories we’re trying to tell.
That commitment to storytelling comes through in a lot of the work at the museum. One of the things that I’m hoping we can talk about is the museum’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a place where people visit, it’s not good and as a place that holds the stories of the city, you’ve undertaken some interesting activities to engage people to tell their story through this pandemic. Maybe you could share a little bit about that for the readers.
In 2020, we all went into lockdown. We didn’t know about the wage subsidy. There was a lot of uncertainty. As we came through it, we had to downsize our organization slightly over the period but we made a decision to be a museum. We initiated a project called Isolating Together, which was a digital archive of Vancouverites telling their stories, sharing their artwork, music or ranting about their experience being isolated together in the City of Vancouver. We’ve taken that. We’re working with SFU turning them into films. What we’ve created is an archive of the moment, a digital archive. We’ve augmenting it with Bonnie Henry‘s shoes. We did some work with Gastown BIA to curate an installation of the COVID murals.
We’re collecting this information and we’re continuing because we’re not through the pandemic. With that decision to pivot, we closed to the public from March 18th, 2020 to June 11th, 2020. We reopened the pandemic. We were one of the first cultural institutions to do so, PPE, social distance. We have a big site and timed entry. We felt that it was important to offer up something to the community. We’ve continued to be open. We’re up to five days a week. We’re seeing the numbers starting to increase. It goes up and down with the anxiety and the weather. Also, as we went into this, we felt that it was important for the organization to do its work as a museum.
To gather the stories and to tell the story, it will be interesting over the years to retell the story as more and more content comes out of it. It’s opened up a digital opportunity for us that is quite unique. All arts groups are pivoting and doing great work there. We’re looking at virtual exhibitions and community curation where individuals living through this experience are essentially creating the content. Framing the story as isolating together will be interesting to see how it plays out over time. That’s a different collection approach. We also pivoted. I was the only CEO in the city that leased a building in Chinatown in the middle of the pandemic.
That was the Hon Hsing, which was the initial launch of the Chinese Canadian Museum Society, which happened in August 2020. When we rented the building, we had to install an exhibition. We have one here called A Seat at the Table. Its sister satellite is on 27 East Pender and had been open to the public. We had to build an exhibition in a socially distanced manner. There was a lot of impact on the fabrication team, the exhibition team, not to mention the pandemic and social distancing. In the end, we’ve had great success with it and it’s kept us relevant and active. We’ve also done a partnership with the YVR. We’re moving our neon collection into the new QuadReal building at the post office. That work helped us get through the transition.
We had to pare down some of our staff. We’ve managed to rehire a couple of them and are looking at this as a rebuilding opportunity. There’s a lot of, “When do you hire,“ because of the numbers and the COVID but we’re working deliberately with the COVID committee and lots of analysis on the trends. We’ve decided and confirmed we’re a museum and we’re going to continue to be proactive. We’ve had some great responses from people and the numbers seem to be picking up. Spring break might have something to do with that. We’re pleased that the decision to continue to be active, create content and work with the community will help us sustain our entity through a challenging time.
It sounds like while we may be isolating together, you’ve been very busy.
We have been busy. Doing things digitally takes longer. This is a value that is interesting. Non-profit organizations, we can’t always pay as much but we have staff that is creative. It’s a creative sector. They’re here because the work means something to them. The resilience that the team showed in stepping up was quite extraordinary. You’re always worried as a nonprofit that someone could make more money in other areas. We’re quite lucky that we’ve got people who are committed and look at this as a career opportunity. Their motivation is a little different. When you’re with a creative organization, with curators, filmmakers and designers, I don’t know if it’s a recipe but certainly in a pandemic having that human capital, that innovation that integrated into every artist has been huge for us. We’re getting lots of compliments from others on our social media. It’s the talent we have. That’s the one thing that nonprofits have. I hope it stays. It’s an expensive city but it has been a benefit to us.
You taking the time to mention that and mention your team is a significant part of the reason why they’re so eager to stay and do their great work.
I hope so. I do have a great team. My leadership style is a little different. I’m an ask for forgiveness and not permission guy. I love to see my team go out there. If something happens, come to me and we can resolve it. If there’s a problem, we can find the solution. You have to ask each of my team members but I think they like that. It’s not that, “You’re the new CEO. Get on the train. We’re going. Don’t ask me where it’s going. Just sit in your seat.“ I think if you allow people to buy into the leadership and let them have a role in it, everybody benefits and so far, I feel that’s working for us.
I want to go back to something you talked about there when we were talking about your work with the three nations, the redress and decolonization. You talked about helping them to tell their stories and put their stories forward as a part of the history of Vancouver. This is an important part. You also have undertaken to support the creation of the Chinese Canadian Museum Society. You’ve played a capacity-building role in helping that organization get off the ground. Tell us a little bit about that. Most of the people reading here that work in the social profit sector know how complicated those kinds of conversations can be. Take us back to when you started those conversations with the Chinese Canadian Museum Society. How you ended up playing that role? What are you going to do going forward?
Years ago, I started and a couple of weeks into my gig, the museum had an exhibition schedule and had been working with UBC for a couple of years on a story of Chinese immigration to British Columbia. That exhibition was well on its way. We’re working with UBC, short grants and 26 individuals from all these organizations. I was invited to the apology. The City of Vancouver apologized to the Chinese community for the injustices over time, the head tax, and all sorts of unfortunate but real events that happened. The apology that the city made followed up on a provincial apology to the community, the creation of a Chinese Legacy Initiative to create a museum to tell the story of the 200 years of history, the 21 Chinatowns.The First Nations’ part in the Vancouver story has not been included in the past. It needs to be integrated into the future. Click To Tweet
Being here for weeks, I looked at this and I went, “We have an exhibition.“ The provincial government has made an apology and they want to launch a museum. I put them together. I approached the city. I went to the province. I brought them in. It became clear that they wanted to launch this museum. They didn’t have an exhibition. Museums are complicated to get started. Our project is called A Seat at the Table. It’s telling the story of Chinese immigration through the restaurant and the agricultural engagement was key to the settlements. We pitched or I met with the government to say, “We can create a satellite called A Seat at the Table, which is built to be mobile.“
The two exhibitions can be reduced to a traveling show to go across the province because it is the Chinese Canadian Society of British Columbia and the Chinese immigration to British Columbia. Victoria was the first Chinatown. Vancouver became the Center but Barkerville, Nimmo, Cumberland and Kamloops had significant communities. Their provincial mandate, the fact that they needed an exhibition and that we had done so much of the work felt like a natural to pull it together. We then sublet a building, built the exhibitions and work together on helping them with their staff. We’re doing a whole bunch of programming. Our catalog will be coming out together. We’ve created this partnership with the Chinese Canadian Museum where we’re doing joint programming back and forth. It’s been a super positive thing for the community.
Other ethno–specific groups might get jealous. I expect the province will have other communities going, “We want a museum too.” We’re here to help them do that. It’s been a really great relationship and a good opportunity for us because we were funded to do this work. Also, with Vancouver’s goal to create a UNESCO, a World Heritage site in Chinatown, the provincial goal to create a heritage museum which is done. How that changes the fabric of the historical community in Vancouver made a lot of sense for the museum to participate with it. We’ll continue to work with them to help build their collections and set up the objects and how a museum can operate and a natural ally for us telling a great story that’s been a long time coming out.
It reminds me of one of the reasons why I liked the social profit sector so much. If this was a private sector business, you’d have this new upstart competitor that was moving in a few kilometers. Far from helping them and partnering with them, you’d be looking for ways to isolate and prevent that from happening. As a leader, how do you approach those opportunities to partner and connect with organizations that we’ve talked about too already? I’m sure it’s a part of your day–to–day ethos as a leader.
It’s a big part. When I came to the museum, I thought that the partnerships and the collaborations could have been extended. We simply started to initiate. We’ve done work with Indian Summer Festival. They would be an ally. With the Vancouver Film Festival, we’re going to do some more work with them. Our Museum of Anthropology and the Vancouver Art Gallery. The Contemporary Art Gallery brought an artist in to bring artifacts out, work with seniors and made this funky Canada council film. The collection belongs to the city and to the people. How can we animate it and create access? Through the partnerships and the collaborations, we see benefits for both sides. In the arts community, our social innovation sector, we’ve been doing this a long time partly because of the scarcity of resources and partly because of the way artists work, it’s all about collaboration, ideas and non-profits.
We share and promote activities that we’re partnered with but we also promote activities that are related to our mission and our mandate. We have done collaborations with Capture Photography Festival, the Chinese Canadian Ceramic Association, YVR Art Foundation, Simon Fraser University, the Greek Government. We have a project called Invenita with the Venetian government. That’s part of my thing. We’re doing a project with 100 UNESCO sites in France through our education program because we see the opportunity. All these museums have collections but they sit in a vault. Five hundred or six hundred come into an exhibition every 10 or 15 years. Digitizing on the web is great but how do you connect your content in the Benaki Museum in Greece, which has this incredible archeological collection, The Shield of Achilles, etc.?
We have an education program in the curriculum called Ancient Civilizations. We have some artifacts that great Vancouverites collected and left with us. With the digital, we’re able to. We did this with the Château d’If, The Count of Monte Cristo. We can do our education programs and then connect into the collections elsewhere. That’s an area I’d like to investigate because content is king. How do you monetize that content? Museums and non-profits have to be creative and look at the social enterprise options. We think that the low hanging fruit there is the educational outcomes. You could have access to a collection anywhere through these means and that would be beneficial for the learners. You get this thinking in the non–profit sector partly because of the scarcity and always living on a good day. Pre–pandemic, we’re on the edge. If you’re risk-averse, profits maybe are a little risky. Arts were always out there and that’s the nature of the work. Collaboration comes naturally to the sector.
One of the things that come through and knowing that the great work you’ve done over the last couple of years, you have a rich history as a funder of arts through your time working at the Vancouver Foundation. You know the sector well. You’re in the sector. A lot of what you’ve described is about making the museum relevant to contemporary Vancouverites and people living well beyond the city limits. Other times when you feel that’s challenging, how do you keep going because that’s making that same point over and over every day plus sometimes get a little fatiguing?
There are challenges. New initiatives change and can be challenging. I approached it a little bit differently. I see it as core to who we are but you’re quite right. Bringing the team and changing the culture to one that’s a little more entrepreneurial than passive is the trick. It can be challenging sometimes because you can’t force your partnerships. As you’re juggling the balls, maybe once in a while, one land goes splat. There are so many opportunities that it’s about patience and hanging in there. There are moments where the partnerships maybe don’t quite work but overall, we’ve seen it. The opposite’s been true. There are moments where you used to have it more straightforward forward but this is our sector.
Is there a moment you can think of in the last years that says, “This is working?”Collaboration comes naturally to the social profit sector. Click To Tweet
Yes, the repatriations that we did with the Haida, locally and with the nations coming to us being able to deliver on this exhibition, which will be opening in mid-May 2021. It’s called That Which Sustains Us. We’ve done a lot of youth engagement initiatives with them that have been positive. I can tell you a little bit about our neon light example. I came here thinking, “How can we use the city as the exhibition space? I have a conservator.” There are museum rules. Putting the neon out in public, even though they were from the street. Vancouver was the neon capital. I had this idea of, “Can we not do an installation and look at it as public art?”
We worked with the Downtown Business Association on the alley project. We were looking at alleys but we have to wire it. You got garbage trucks going in there and it was a bit risky. As it evolved through a contact at the Australian Arts Council, we brought some designers up here to talk about architectural lighting. We met developers and had a conversation with QuadReal who was redoing the post office on a heritage building. In that relationship, we talked about, “How are you telling the story of Vancouver?” They want to animate. That came from them. Taking them into our little neon exhibition clicked because these are businesses and a lot of those lights came from Hastings Street. To create the satellite, we could have our lights refurbished. We could launch an exhibition. It means we have more space to do another exhibition.
We’re paid to do this, which is wonderful and we can always bring it back. I think there are other opportunities. We’re doing some work at the City of Vancouver on their third floor because their displays are not up to our level. We’re almost contracting out and creating a bit of a social enterprise to take the objects, artifacts and the city to help tell the story of the place. We can’t do that with all of our artifacts because some are more sensitive but this thing started off with sticking them in the alley. My conservatory was going to lock me out of my office because that’s verboten in the museum world but it evolved into something that’s going to be great. It’s going to be inside the foyer. It’s going to reanimate the space and create more opportunities for us to tell our stories.
I look forward to seeing that. I‘m getting a sense of why you’re a hard guy to schedule with all of those conversations and all those things going on. You’re doing the important work. As we come to the end of our conversation, you do so much of telling the story of Vancouver. You’ve talked about using the city as an exhibition space, which I love that concept. As we reemerge from our isolation together over the course of the coming summer, what are you hopeful for? What brings you hope in your role or as a person?
It’s been a roller coaster. I’m optimistic about the museum. The creative part is huge potential. I’m hopeful people will come back. I do crave the contact. While the digital is wonderful, it’ll be a great tool. I’m looking forward to the day where the museums are more open and we’re able to bring people together face–to–face. I was going to go on a holiday a week before the lockdown. I’m also looking forward to that personally. Our sector has been hit by the pandemic, particularly our colleagues in the performing arts. As the sector comes through this, I feel it’s important for the museum to be active in that area. I’m hoping that we can return to normal.
There’s a great question. When we’re sitting in this, we’re continuing to do our work and try to move it forward, I feel and I think everyone’s feeling like it’s harder to do stop. People get flattened a little bit. One day the numbers are down and you’re thinking, “We’ll be back to normal.“ There’s an announcement that there are more infections or new strains. I’m wanting to get through this. Keeping motivation is important. The work is important. That’s been good for the team to get through this. I’d like to see a little more in-person. It’s coming back to normal and everyone’s there. How about you? How would you answer that?
I‘m always supportive of the sector but I’m incredibly proud to have spent my career in the social profit sector. When you see the innovative ways organizations like the Museum of Vancouver and many others have responded in our city, how the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra and how the Opera have been able to pivot and offer programming in a short period of time, it’s a high level. It’s inspiring. In the way, donors have come responded in terms of supporting the most vulnerable. Our communities also are a source of pride and inspiration. We’re built for this. This is what the social profit sector is.
When everything is shaken, a lot falls to us as a sector. We’ve done one heck of a job of doing that. Certainly, things we could do better and we would do differently. I’m proud. This isn’t going to happen but I hope that a bell will ring and say, “We’re allowed out. We’ll take a week off.” Everybody in the social profits sector gets the week off, paid, to mark the transition of what has been this exhausting marathon that we have as a group generally, ran so incredibly well.
To a degree, I was. Some of the pivots have been great and that’s the resiliency and that creativity in the sector. I should mention one thing, when we reopened, we half our price of entry. We did that because we didn’t want to have friction or any barriers for Vancouverites. For the younger folks maybe, it was a fair deal. That was another little bit we’ve done. I totally agree with you, Douglas. A lot of this has been devolved to the nonprofits to pick up something that maybe the government used to do. We are quite efficient, challenged again with funding. We need our boards and our fundraising super important but we do add value to the community.
The importance of the third sector, if you will, is coming out when you think of healthcare, the seniors and how we move forward. That cultural content that we create is super important for a community. Sometimes you feel that it gets discounted. You’re an artist. You drive a taxi. We’re not where the Europeans are where they revere the arts but we’re going to push in and we’ll get there. I’ll guarantee this. After this, this sector will explode with new content and ideas. It’s been a bit beaten down now. The Museum of Vancouver got beaten down but we’re resilient and we’re going to keep going. I’m positive. I know there are some challenges but I feel like we’ll be there to help this community come back to normal.
You’ve done so much to help to keep this community together, Mauro. I appreciate that. Thank you very much for being on the show.
That’s great. If there’s anything we can do for you, come down to the museum. We got some great content, socially distanced through the website, timed entry. To any readers, come and learn about your city. We’re here for you. It’s a safe place.
Thank you much.
- Museum of Vancouver
- A Seat at the Table
- Chinese Canadian Museum
- Vancouver Art Gallery
- YVR Art Foundation
- Vancouver Foundation