5 ideas for Calgary's Glenbow Museum

Attendance is up, yet the Glenbow Museum has run deficits at over $1 million for the last three years. Insiders, including the new CEO and a well-known historian, talk about what could turn the Calgary institution's future around.
Glenbow Museum's creation began in 1966 with a donation by Eric Harvey of his huge collection of artifacts. (CBC)

A Calgary cultural icon has lost its president.

Glenbow Museum president and CEO Kirstin Evenden resigned Tuesday after 19 years with the organization.

Although attendance is up, the museum has run deficits at more than $1 million for the last three years. 

A well-known historian describes the Calgary institution as operating in survival mode.

CBC News talked to insiders, including Evenden’s replacement, about what could help turn the Glenbow’s future around.

A clear focus

Glenbow bills itself as a museum, art gallery and library archive. Permanent exhibits range from the sculptures from Asia to the history of Alberta mavericks.

Glenbow interim president Donna Livingstone is taking a leave from her position as the director with libraries and cultural resources at the University of Calgary. (CBC)

Interim president Donna Livingstone said she’ll take a fresh look at how the museum operates.

"I think that's why people expect so many different things of the Glenbow because we are such a diverse, complex organization. I think we want to look at the complexity of what we have and just focus in on those things that we're really good at and then build up from there."

A clear goal would help unite the staff, said Kim Hallis, president of for CUPE Local 1645.

"I think there is a lot of pull within the institution, not really having the clarity of vision and goal," she said.

"We have this amazing collection, we have a gift that we always want to express and share with the community, and we’re not really sure how that messaging is getting out."

Keeping new audiences

Bringing in new audiences continues to be a priority for interim president Livingstone.

Glenbow Museum attracted more than 128,000 visitors in 2011-2012, up eight per cent from the previous fiscal year.

The biggest draw was an autobiographical video installation by multimedia artist Laurie Anderson — a joint project with One Yellow Rabbit’s High Performance Rodeo.

"We’ve been very pleased as well with a lot of our adult programing. We’re bringing in new audiences for that, younger audiences, and people who are really plugged in to contemporary events," said Livingstone.

More government funding

Visits and memberships only account for 11 per cent of Glenbow’s operating revenue. A third of the funding comes from the Alberta government, with another 24 per cent from fundraising and 18 per cent from investments.

Hugh Dempsey, a well-known historian, author and a former Glenbow director, describes it as the "poor relative" among the province’s museums.

For every artifact on display, 10 are in storage, yet there’s so little money that the institution has been forced into survival mode, he said.

"There’s no question in my mind that if the government was being a little more generous, if it recognized the contribution that Glenbow is making to Calgary and southern Alberta that additional funding could go a long way," Dempsey said.

"It is in a position, as a first-class facility, to bring in some of the finest exhibitions in the world to the people of Calgary and to the people of Alberta if the funding was available."

One of Evenden’s hopes was a larger space for the museum, which leases its building on 9th Avenue downtown. When asked Tuesday if a new building was in Glenbow’s future, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi responded "maybe."

An influx from corporate Calgary

Glenbow Museum has traditionally received "extremely good support from Calgary businesses," said Dempsey.

But Kim Hallis, CUPE Local 1645, said Calgary’s corporate sector could be doing more to help the Glenbow.

"We’ve been struggling with sponsorships in connection to the shows that we have," she said. "Provincial money has been fairly maintained… it even grew slightly. But it’s more corporate sponsors and the investment from corporate Calgary in the institution."

Less than a dozen donors offered more than $50,000 in 2011-2012, according to the museum’s annual report.

A better workplace

With a running deficit of more than $1 million and 14 positions eliminated in August alone, it’s been a tough year for museum staff. 

"Big concerns always with workload, lack of staff and just not feeling that their voice was being heard in a way that was valuable to them, so we're really hopeful for change towards that," said union president Hallis.

"We just need some energy, some honesty, some sense of the future and what the future holds for the institution and the staff as well."

The museum can’t fulfill its mandate without adequate staff, added Dempsey.

"Each year there’s a little more decline, a few more people laid off," he said. 

"For example when I was with the Glenbow, the library had a staff of six or several people, now it’s one and a half. You get to a point where the diminishing returns are such that you can no longer offer the service to the people of Alberta that was intended."