By Paul Knowles
David Marskell came to TheMuseum ready to fight, prepared to battle for the survival of the three-year-old entity. He understood he would have to fight public perception, underfunding municipal governments, and a less than stellar reputation then being worn by downtown Kitchener.
Now, almost a decade later, Marskell is still fighting for his museum. And having a great time in the process.
TheMuseum was founded as the Waterloo Regional Children’s Museum in the fall of 2003. It was a visionary concept, but not necessarily a sustainable one.Three years later, the management board recognized a life-threatening situation. They went looking for new leadership.
Marskell says, “It was very clear, by the books, that it was ready to close.” He adds, “It matched the challenge I needed at that stage of my career.” He had held leadership positions at the Canadian National Exhibition, and at Ontario Place; he’d also served as chief of staff for an Ontario cabinet minister.
“I went through seven interviews,” says Marskell, and during the process, he discovered that although the museum might be on shaky ground, the new CEO was expected to “commit to this community.” That meant moving to Kitchener-Waterloo.
Marskell, always one to enjoy a challenge, said yes. But he had some stipulations he asked the board to focus on strategy and governance, while giving him “free reign to try and breathe life into it.” They agreed.
It was clear that operating solely as a children’s museum was not going to be sustainable. Attendance was not strong.
But there was an upside. “The biggest assets included the wonderful facility and the committed, young staff.” Furthermore, Marskell soon realized “the community wanted this to succeed.”
Marskell recalls the amount of thought that went into the conclusion that the facility could not continue as an entity solely functioning as a children’s museum “there were not enough families in the catchment area.” It had to broaden the appeal, while keeping the focus on children “at the core.”
And broaden he did, with exhibitions ranging from “Discovering Chimpanzees: The Amazing World of Jane Goodall” to “Andy Warhol’s Factory.” Andy Warhol at a children’s museum?
Well, not a museum exclusively for kids that was the point. Marskell led a visionary rebranding, as the downtown Kitchener entity became, simply, “THEMUSUEM”.
He continued to bring cutting-edge exhibitions, including shows about the Titanic, the Cosmos, artist Tom Tomson, and Bob Marley. Marskell has maintained an adult-attracting edge to the place, offering “The Science of Sexuality” in 2014, and “Getting Naked” in 2015.
But kids are never forgotten visitors to TheMuseum this season encounter life-size Dinosaurs.
All of this has worked, says the CEO. “We’ve got some momentum going.” As he moves into his 10th year at TheMuseum, he oversees a staff of 18 full-timers, 12-14 part-time staffers, and “an army of volunteers”. TheMuseum has now attracted over 800,000 visitors; in the past year, “we brought 85,000 people downtown.”
So it’s all good at TheMuseum? Well, there are certainly challenges, and most of them come with dollar signs. The level of public funding available to TheMuseum is an ever-present issue, and the CEO is never shy about raising the point. “We are underfunded when you compare us to the other organizations in this region and in Canada.” Almost three quarters of TheMuseum’s budget has to be raised by the organization, itself. A comparison of grants is a bit surprising the Waterloo Regional Museum receives $8 million a year, including capital grants; TheMuseum gets $370,000 of its $2.3 million annual budget.
There’s an upside to this, says Marskell, although it’s clear he would trade this particular upside for some additional funding. The current situation “keeps us entrepreneurial, lean… we live on the edge. We negotiate hard. We’ve become more strategic.”
Marskell brings unending energy to his job, and whatever the level of municipal grants, he’s damn well going to make his museum a smashing success.
He’s pleased, though, that the Region of Waterloo commissioned a new study about the levels of funding for six cultural entities identified as “pillar organizations” TheMuseum, the KW Symphony, the Kitchener Waterloo Art Gallery, the Clay & Glass Gallery, the Creative Enterprise Initiative, and the Grand Philharmonic Choir.
Marskell makes sure he emphasizes the reality of operating cultural institutions: “Museums and galleries don’t get to sustainability.” Cultural institutions will always need public funding. Marskell is not arguing for full funding, but he does make a strong case for fairness. He points with pride to an improving financial report card for TheMuseum. The most recent period was “our fiscally strongest year in eight years.”
Marskell says that, beyond funding models, “It’s important that arts and culture organizations work together.”
A higher level of public funding is key, in his mind, to a much higher public impact. “Imagine,” he says, “what we could do if we didn’t have to worry about payroll.”
He’s proud of attracting 85,000 people annually to the core. He remembers, less than a decade ago, when TheMuseum’s neighbourhood was “scary”, but he immediately realized “the facility was brilliant, and the location was perfect.”
And, with downtown revitalization and the ION light rail transit, he thinks it will be even more perfect.
The only new problem is that TheMuseum may become a victim of its own success. “We’re in a good place,” says the CEO, but “we’ll need to expand. We’re going to outgrow this space. I don’t know what that means… our board will look at all options.”
Right now, though, TheMuseum is full of dinosaurs, and this fall, will open an exhibit called “Light Illuminated”, an exhibition produced in cooperation with the University of Waterloo Institute of Quantum Computing, celebrating the United Nations’ Year of Light.
And then? With David Marskell at the helm… anything is possible. EX