New CEO has big plans to revitalize Glenbow Museum

The Glenbow Museum has appointed a new president and CEO who's looking to transition the familiar Calgary institution into the future. On Aug. 20, it announced that Nicholas R. Bell would be stepping into the role with a focus on reviving its legacy. 

Former Smithsonian curator Nicholas R. Bell to oversee 'full transformation'

Nicholas Bell previously worked as the senior vice-president for curatorial affairs at the Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut and as the curator-in-charge of the Smithsonian American Art Museum's Renwick Gallery.  (Supplied by the Glenbow Museum)

The Glenbow Museum has appointed a new president and CEO who's looking to transition the familiar Calgary institution into the future. 

On Aug. 20, the art gallery and museum announced that Vancouverite Nicholas R. Bell would be stepping into the role with a focus on reviving its legacy. 

According to the Glenbow's website, this will involve "a full transformation of its building and exhibit spaces." 

Bell previously worked as the senior vice-president for curatorial affairs at the Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut and as the curator-in-charge of the Smithsonian American Art Museum's Renwick Gallery

In the announcement of his appointment at the Glenbow, he was credited with helping to increase the Renwick Gallery's annual visitors to one million.

He begins his position at the Glenbow on Nov. 1 shouldering expectations that he can work the same magic in Calgary.

On Thursday, Bell spoke to the Calgary Eyeopener's guest host Doug Dirks about his past accomplishments, the Glenbow's challenges, and how he plans to bring an ambitious reimagining of the museum into fruition.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: What attracted you to this position here in Calgary given your background?

A: No. 1, there is so much energy in Calgary right now. I like the people, I like what I've seen going on at the Glenbow Museum, and I think there are really exciting things ahead. And I'm from Vancouver originally, and it felt like it was about time to come home.

 Q: The Glenbow has had a rocky financial history, we all know that, and there are big expectations that you can revive and re-establish the museum's reputation. So how are you planning to do that?

A: It's important to recognize that a lot of non-profits struggled during the Great Recession; many of them had difficult finances over the last 10 to 15 years. And that's not unlike what was going on across the country and, indeed, across the continent.

But I think the Glenbow is in a really good place. We have a positive balance sheet. Donna Livingstone, who just has departed as CEO of the Glenbow [and] has moved on to Banff, left the museum in really good stead. She did great work along with the CFO and this team, and we're really primed for the future.

Q: One of the things many Calgarians and visitors have struggled with for years is, is the Glenbow a museum? Is it an art gallery? Is it a combination of the two? What is it exactly?

A: I actually like the fact that it's a little bit difficult to define, and that has some similarities with where I've been in the past, both in Connecticut and Washington, D.C. 

I think museums are most interesting when they don't necessarily fit into a strict discipline; when their collections are a little bit all over the place. It gives you an opportunity to follow stories wherever they go. And so, I think it's really attractive that the Glenbow's collections represent a lot of different cultures, a lot of different kinds of museum work. And I think we can really work with that, and that's a strength. 

Q: What is your vision for the Glenbow going forward?

A: I think right now we are at such an exciting moment at the Glenbow and in Calgary, because we know that we have the chance right now to revitalize this museum and reintroduce it to the public. The Glenbow is the perfect example of a major Canadian institution which still has a little bit of catching up to do for a 21st century audience. And so, we see that both in the building, and then some of the programming.

And this is just the right moment to turn that corner, to refresh the building, to start thinking about what a 21st century museum should look like, and how we're going to make ourselves relevant to every Calgarian and everyone that comes to visit this city. 

Q: How do you go about refreshing the building given some of the economic challenges that you were talking about?

A: It's wonderful that we are hearing voices of support from across the community, and that includes all of the levels of our government. Those are ongoing conversations, and we are feeling optimistic that all of the parties that would be a part of a major project to revitalize the Glenbow are interested, and that we can move forward.

And in terms of how we make ourselves relevant to the city, it's important to engage those communities, and to go out there and to listen to them and say, 'How can we be the museum for you?' Because I think, at the end of the day, no great city gets there without having an art museum or a history museum — or both, like the Glenbow.

Q: When you were the curator in charge at the Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery, you helped increase that museum's attendance from 150,000 annually to a million visitors a year. How did you do that?

A: It's not a dissimilar situation as to what we're looking at right now in Calgary.

We had, I would say, an under-performing wing of the Smithsonian off the National Mall, so it didn't get as much traffic. The building was 170 years old; we decided to close it down, do a two-year renovation, and this was the perfect opportunity to throw out the rule book, throw out all of the expectations and build from scratch.

And when we reintroduced that museum in 2015, frankly, I think we blew the socks off the city and we had lineups down the block for several months. It was really exciting.

Q: I don't anticipate you shutting the Glenbow down for two years to renovate and come up with a new theme, but what's the transition going to look like if you have a grand vision?

A: I think this is also where the experience I have in Connecticut also plays into it, because of course we haven't closed that museum, but we've been really trying to change perception about a major program there. And I know that we have room in Calgary to change perceptions, and as we changed that relationship to the city, we'll also start to change behaviour. I would love to see many, many more people coming down to the Glenbow.

Q: I have to admit I haven't been to the Glenbow in a while. When our kids were younger, we would go, depending on the exhibits, of course, and it was a great outing for the family. But I haven't really felt compelled to go to the Glenbow in recent years. So what about capturing the imagination of Calgarians and getting them to make it a regular part of their lives?

A: The key is to realize that the strength of the Glenbow is already there, that the collections that the museum houses are rich and diverse and exciting.

It's simply to change the way that you have that conversation — and to be able to communicate it effectively to different audiences — so that they understand that this is already their museum, and that there should be a greater sense of urgency in visiting. But that's part of the work that we'll get started as soon as I arrive.

Q: You're sitting on a treasure trove in the archives, so how do you go through that and try and reimagine what you'd like the future to look like?

A: I've got a lot of learning ahead of me because I'm new to Calgary, obviously, [and] new to the museum. I'm really excited to get on the ground in a few weeks here, and to start learning a little bit more about those collections and to meet more of the team and to see how we can do great work together.

Q: To what extent now with museums is it about marketing and getting people excited about what you're doing? You're up against so many things, and you need to get people off the couch, because they're too busy streaming their latest favourite movie on Netflix.

A: I believe in the power of a great object, and a great story, that you really aren't going to get through a screen. And I think there is an understanding of that, even if it's not something we talk about everyday.

People inherently know that they will have a good time if they got off the couch and get off their phone and come and see something that's real. And I know we can convince them of that, because deep down inside, they already know, too. 

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener.