What do you enjoy most about your job?

The variety of decisions you have to make and the variety of people you interact with on any given day as a director is extreme. It’s making decisions about which art to buy and show, who to invite to which event, where to allocate resources, etc. You really have your hand in everything, which makes for a fascinating day.

Another thing is the opportunity to encourage people to become art lovers by using the right kind of language for them. What’s fun is seeing someone get very excited about something they never imagined themselves enjoying. There’s nothing like it. It’s the most gratifying part of my job.

There will be a wonderful interface between technology and art that will make it possible for museums to be even more about the actual pieces and the viewer’s experience.

How are museums in Canada changing?

Like every other kind of institution, museums are trying to keep up with the times technologically. We have enormous needs for technological innovation, but funding isn’t always consistent. New money isn’t coming from the old sources. Museum directors and even curators have to be much more conscious of the fact that if they want their project to succeed, they’re going to need some investment in it. You’re going to have to be a friendly, affable person—the type of person that a wealthy donor or generous sponsor would want to spend time with. Cool, bookish, standoffish, ivory tower museum directors are a thing of the past.

One of the biggest challenges, of course, is the value of art. As an art institution that collects, there are a lot of things that we need for our collection that we will never be able to afford. They’re in the tens of millions of dollars. The public loves the same things that billionaires do, who are prepared to pay a huge amount of money for a painting that the public would come in huge numbers to see. That’s a particularly big challenge for small regional museums.

Despite record numbers in museum attendance in cities like New York, London, and Paris, other places in the world are actually seeing a decrease in their numbers for a variety of reasons—particularly competition for leisure time from the Internet. I don’t think it’s useful for museums to create virtual art experiences for the Internet to attract people, because that way, museums aren’t going to be able to pay for their collections and their care. Aspects of the virtual experience also degrade the art in the process. Anyone who loves live music or theatre will tell you that. It’s completely impossible to translate art to a machined experience. It’s unrealistic to think that you can experience much art on your monitor, even video art!

 

What do you think the museum will look like in 10 or 20 years?

I think museums are going to actually have more art, paradoxically. There will be a wonderful interface between technology and art that will make it possible for museums to be even more about the actual pieces and the viewer’s experience, thanks to the additional information that can be accessed through a smartphone. An increase of retail and food/beverage service will also make the museum feel less like a fancy storage facility.

 

How is the art world in Canada changing?

Because of the growing sophistication and success of our education system, programming and communications, Canadian art is going to increase in global prominence. And as the Canadian art market continues to grow, our art increasingly becomes a safe investment for foreigners, so there will be more opportunities for Canadian artists to develop foreign audiences without having to leave home.

It’ll be harder to get a job in museums, unless you are smart about your specialty. Museums are having an increasingly hard time competing with the art market for good people, given the discrepancy in salaries between the sectors. Our labour market also can’t absorb all the talented people our schools produce. So many of the young people I’ve worked with here in the past have long since moved away to the US, the UK or Australia.

 

What advice would you give to students interested in a career in arts and museums? 

If you want to work directly with art and artists, you need to have a very solid background in art history. Those are people who have strong knowledge, experience, and a good educational background in the field that they’ve chosen—whether it’s old masters, prints, photographs, or contemporary art. But the more versatile you are, the better. You are more likely to get work in a small museum where versatility is key.

You need to be a sensitive and plain-spoken person when talking about art. We certainly like people who understand the difference between a good and great Lawren Harris, which is more than just book learning. That’s something that can’t really be taught in school, but can only be gained by seeing a lot of art in the flesh, by visiting as many art museums and galleries as you can.

Languages are extremely useful, because much of the relevant information that you need to know about may be in other languages besides English. The art market has globalized in recent years, so foreign languages are important.

If you want to be a museum director, however, a MBA will be increasingly useful on top of your degree in Art History as art museums diversify their revenue streams. Plus it’s always good to have the same references as your trustees and donors so that you don’t need a translator in the boardroom!

About the author

Marc Mayer

Marc Mayer is the Director and CEO of the National Gallery of Canada. He received his Bachelor of Arts with a major in Art History from McGill University. Prior to joining the National Gallery, Marc worked for Toronto’s Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, New York’s Brooklyn Museum, and Montreal’s Musée d'art Contemporain de Montréal.