Sarah Oakley, a fourth-year student at Western University, recently sat down with Museum London’s soon-to-be-retired Executive Director, Brian Meehan. Brian has held the position of Executive Director for twenty years. Sarah, as a young person who is considering a career in the arts, brings her personal and thoughtful perspective to their conversation with probing and self-reflecting questions, enabling Brian to expound on his successes and experiences as Executive Director, while revealing not only the inner workings of the Museum but also how he kept his finger on the pulse of the arts locally, while navigating the Museum to its now well-positioned place in the community.
SO: To begin, Brian, it would probably be best to orient readers with a bit of background about your personal career. So, when you started as Executive Director at Museum London, you had been seconded from Tom Thomson Art Gallery in Owen Sound – when you had heard about this position in London, did you feel that this role would be a good fit?
BM: It was certainly a big step-up for me. The Tom Thomson in Owen Sound is a pretty small organization and the Director and Curator are the same type of position [as this one] there, so coming to a place with a much larger staff and budget, it certainly came with a learning curve.
SO: I can imagine. When I had read about your background in Owen Sound, it did appear to be quite a jump, but it’s also interesting since the history of directors at Museum London has usually been local people from southwestern Ontario. I know you are originally from Calgary. So now you come to the city of London, where there is quite a reigning history of divisiveness within the arts and cultures. And Museum London itself has a bit of contested history as well, in terms of the general public thinking that its establishment was a waste of money, the name changed multiple times, there was a significant and sometimes hostile turnover of the Museum’s early leaders. Knowing all that, was becoming Executive Director of Museum London an intimidating context to step into, or did you know beforehand about these challenges that you may encounter.
BM: Yeah, I certainly did know about the history. And I think some of the critics at the time, saying that this building was too big and should’ve been more realistic, certainly those concerns were borne out when the Museum had to close the entire second floor for eighteen months in the early 80s. But over time we’ve sort of grown into the building, I think and have slowly tried to really address some of those concerns that the community has had in the past, and they are not concerns that strictly Museum London has. It is not uncommon to hear of museums and galleries struggling to connect with their communities. Unfortunately, the arts are still seen as sort of an elitist thing, and that always is something that is hard to break down, but it is something that we can never let up on and continue to fight against. We need to show that we aren’t elitists, and we are part of the community.
SO: That endeavour is certainly evident in the projects that you have been involved with during your time at Museum London – you seem to evidently realise a community focus within the Museum’s programming efforts, such as UPwithArt, which raises money for Unity Project. However, one of the major projects that was not necessarily related to community-based collaboration was the development of the Centre of the Forks. At the time, civic responses definitely did seem to challenge the proposal of this development; so, how exactly did you come up with the idea of this development, and what were some of the obstacles that you may have faced in its execution?
BM: This goes back almost ten years, I think. There were a few of us in the community who were involved with the Museum and who were thinking about how we could better serve the history component of what we do, because that has been, I think, a justifiable criticism, that we have not done the best with the history side of things. So, we got thinking about how would we change the organization to address that? We worked with an architect. I don’t know if you know, but under our front lawn is where our artefact vault is. It’s a 100-foot square room and it’s quite extraordinary, but when it was built in the late 80s, it was built in such a way that you could construct a two- or three-storey building on top of it. And the Museum at the time was thinking at some point maybe a history museum expansion could be built there. So, we kind of started with that premise. And also, at the time the Children’s Museum was talking about relocating and we actually had conversations with them about the possibility of them joining us on our site, so then we would have a history museum, a children’s museum, and an art gallery. We thought the thing that could tie everything together would be kind of a learning centre, which all three entities could utilize. It seems kind of funny, thinking about it now. Actually, this goes back almost fifteen years, when we first had some architectural renderings done. But the 2008 financial collapse hit and we knew that was not the time to be doing something like that. The Children’s Museum later decided that they might lose their identity if they were to become part of a larger project. Actually, I’m glad they did because what’s happening at the former Kellogg’s building is really exciting.
But, the idea of the learning centre stuck with us and we thought we can actually create one quite easily – I mean, any capital campaign will have some difficulties, but it was a much more manageable project than doing the stand-alone history museum and incorporating the Children’s Museum and then also building a learning centre. That’s where this idea started and it developed over a few years and it probably kicked into gear in 2014-2015. We developed a capital cabinet and brought in a professional campaign manager and started raising the money for it. And we actually achieved our goals, for the most part.
SO: That’s incredible. Quite a success story. So, once this development was actually realized, when you look back at the process in hindsight and you had mentioned how the 2008 financial collapse had impacted the course of the project, did the project take longer than you had initially envisioned; or did the fund-raising campaign work out how you had expected, logistically-speaking?
BM: Yeah, it was pretty close to being on the timeline that we had thought, which was really great. We were so fortunate that we had a really wonderful campaign cabinet who were well-connected with the community and were willing to go out and have those conversations with people that they knew could support it. And, we just got a really wonderful response from the community – they really bought into the idea that this would be a cultural commons, it was a place that people could gather in a multitude of ways, and that really did seem to resonate with people.
SO: Yes. I actually started volunteering with Museum London a couple of years ago at the beginning of the pandemic; and while we haven’t been permitted on site very many times, the Tour Guide group, that I am part of, hosted our meetings in the Centre of the Forks and when we congregated there. The vision for the development that you’ve just described is very much felt – that inspired sense of community. So, as a member of the public and a Museum volunteer, I can attest that this project was certainly successful.
In terms of programming itself, can we go back and acknowledge this history of a somewhat contentious art world in London, with people holding onto the legendary-ness of London’s art scene in the 60s? As Executive Director, how have you mediated this history to give London a cultural identity outside of Regionalism? Have you attempted to instigate a new direction for how you would like Museum London to be perceived locally and nationally? I’ve noticed that the Museum’s website has become quite lively and vibrant recently, and I’m sure you’ve had a hand in that, so was that the direction that you have been trying to take the Museum?
BM: Yeah, the challenge for a place like ours is that you want to respect the history, but you also want to be as supportive and nurturing of the community that exists now. And, so, you know, I would say over the years we’ve struck a pretty good balance in doing those two things. We’ve had some major shows of people like Curnoe and Chambers and others from that era, but at the same time, it’s really important for us to be focussing, through our exhibitions and collections and public programs, on artists who are either emerging or now more established and make sure that they get the same kind of treatment and exposure as some of the bigger names. London is quite a remarkable place; it’s really best known for the Regionalist movement in the 50s and 60s, but I really think that London, per capita, probably has a stronger arts community than just about anywhere in Canada.
West side of Museum London. Image from Museum London website.
SO: Yes, I would agree with that. I’ve been in the art history program at Western, and regionalism gets worked into pretty much any course that you take. I feel fortunate to be a student in the arts while living in a city like London. People think that you have to be in a metropolis, like Toronto or Montreal, just to be involved in the larger art world, but London continues to be a very vibrant place for the arts.
BM: It’s funny that you say that because that was really the driving force behind Regionalism and I think that that sentiment still holds true today. I mean, you’ve got so many artists who live in London who have national and international careers, and I don’t think staying here, as opposed to living in Toronto or Montreal, has held them back at all.
SO: That’s encouraging to hear as a young person in this industry.
So, moving back to the reasoning for our conversation, your retirement – which is amazing, and congratulations! – but you did announce this decision a year’s time in advance, which I gather was largely for logistical reasons such as sourcing a replacement for the role. But, was the timing of the ongoing pandemic an influencing factor at all?
BM: No, not really. I turned 65 back in March [last year], and that’s sort of the traditional time to consider retirement. So, I had been thinking about it for a while. And my wife, she was an MP, and she chose not to run in the last election and retired in September . So, for the both of us, the timing just seemed to be right. It will be twenty years I’ve been here and as much as I think we continue to move forward as an organization, getting fresh eyes and fresh ideas in, is always a good idea for an organization. So, I’m really excited to see what happens once I’m gone.
SO: I can imagine. It must be a bit of relief to see what other people can bring to this type of role once you move on. With that being said, was it frustrating to then spend your last year as Executive Director in the restrictive conditions brought on by the pandemic? I mean, as a volunteer, I can attest to the disappointment of so many events having to be cancelled or postponed, and Museum closures entirely. Was that disappointing?
BM: It was. You know, what is most satisfying about this work is the public aspect of it, when people gather for openings or talks, when the community comes together to celebrate art and artists, and we have not been able to do really any of that in the past two years. I think it’s taken a toll on everyone, so it has been frustrating. So much work goes into the exhibitions that the curators do, and all people involved in the exhibitions – the artists and the staff. We just had Gardenship [& State] up, which was an absolutely wonderful exhibition and if you saw it, you could realize just how much work went into the exhibition on the part of the curators and on the part of the artists who went to so much effort to create new pieces for the show. So, to have to cut that short and have so many people who would’ve wanted to see it but were unable to, it really was frustrating and disappointing.
SO: I was actually a gallery attendant for the Gardenship [& State] exhibition that ran from October  through to January , and I encountered a lot of disappointment and inquiry about the show – many people were surprised that the Museum was able to re-open at all and were eager to return to the exhibition with guests of their own to share the experience that has been restricted for the last two years. I saw Patrick Mahon [co-curator] bring quite a few groups through on the weekends when I was volunteering, and it was wonderful to observe the congregation of the public that you described as being so integral to institutions like Museum London – something that was certainly been taken for granted pre-pandemic. You could really see that this exhibition felt more special with all things considered. Trying to squeeze as much viewership within the reduced exhibition running time amongst pandemic restrictions was fascinating, and as we learned, it can be taken away at a moment’s notice – which it was! [Gardenship & State ended prematurely as the Museum had to close down for the last three weeks of the exhibition’s running time.].
But you mention that you are excited for Julie Bevan [the newly appointed Executive Director of Museum London] to bring in new ideas. So, how did you keep up your own motivation during the last year or so while finishing out your role? Did you notice a general slump in your own creativity, or what did you do to bring in new ideas, and even, new people?
BM: Well, I think the credit has to go to our staff. They really stepped up and had to change their way of thinking, obviously, from delivering their programs in person and start doing things for the community now online. There is so many interesting programs and exhibitions that they came up with. Kudos to them, because often they were working in isolation. Not only were we closed to the public but we were also all working from home, which comes with its own challenges. But, [there have been] a lot of really creative ways of dealing with that. I don’t know if you’ve looked at the 80ML online exhibition, but that was a wonderful way of connecting our art and artefact collections with the community. We had 80 different Londoners involved and we asked for their perspective on the objects. We have got a lot of positive feedback on that exhibition. A lot of positive feedback on the online programming in general.
SO: That’s wonderful. I mean, as everybody keeps saying, we are living in unprecedented times, so, it is impressive that the Museum’s programming has still been successful during these conditions.
BM: It will be interesting to see how this plays out, because, now so many of the granting agencies are providing money for digital initiatives, and I think that will be one of the difficulties in the coming years… That is, how do you balance what you’ve learned about delivering online content with the need and desire to deliver in-person content? There is only so many hours in the day, and there are the needs of staff, so how do we work that out? The challenge will be, what is the best way to deliver programming to your supporters?
SO: Absolutely. It’s something you even notice in daily life now While we have realized that it can be isolating to do everything remotely, it can also be more efficient at times. So, it becomes easy to slip into those habits, even as we are trying to work back to where we were before – it’s finding that balance, I guess, as you say.
Going back to the mention of your focussed consideration for community needs and wants; when you stepped into the role of Executive Director, which can be described as quite a bureaucratic position, did you ever encounter any “ethical” conflicts, while navigating between the corporate and the community needs?
BM: Nothing comes to mind. Usually, when we’re working with the community, a lot of thought is given to the fit early on in the process. Before we invest too much time into a partnership, we’re quite sure that it is the right fit, and that the values of both organizations align and our goals align. So, I can’t ever really recall a time when that became an issue for us.
SO: Oh, that sounds pretty ideal then!
BM: I mean, there are so many great organizations in the community that we love working with, or would love to work with in the future. I’ve always thought that the Museum is a cultural attraction, but we also provide a public service – we are a public service. So, it’s important for us, rather… and it’s so easy to do on a day-to-day basis, it’s easy to just be looking inward and not thinking about community. But, it’s really important to be looking out as much as looking inward. And looking for those opportunities, like you mentioned, with Unity Project. Also, we’ve done a lot of work with the Black History resource committee and LUSO, and there’s a whole bunch of organizations that we’ve worked with. We’ve been able to do more, by working with them. I think that’s one of the realizations up front, partnerships can be a lot of work, but in the long run, when they go well, and they usually do, you end up being able to do more than you would on your own.
SO: Of course. I can really see it from that perspective now – I was not considering that collaboration with other community organizations can actually enhance the Museum’s ability to fulfill its own institutional mandates while also addressing the needs of the community through carefully aligned bureaucratic engagements.
To change pace, I wanted to ask about your academic background in studio art – I have read that you were educated at Alberta College of Art and Nova Scotia College of Art and Design before establishing your professional career. Was your art practice something that you have been able to maintain in your personal life while working as Executive Director, or is it something that you see yourself tending to more within your retirement?
BM: Yeah, I wasn’t able to maintain it. I know there are a few directors in the country and a few curators who have been able to maintain a practice along with their career – I was never able to do it. But, yeah, the question about what happens in retirement is an interesting one, and I go back and forth: part of me thinks I might pick it up again, and then part of me thinks, you know, it’s hard when you’ve been surrounded by so much good art and you basically have to start over again and cut yourself enough slack [so that] when you are making something that isn’t very good, haha, [you don’t think] “oh, I’m just going to quit”. So, it would be sort of a mental challenge as much as anything to pick it up again, but I’m certainly leaving myself open to the possibility of doing that.
SO: That’s entirely relatable. Within my own relationship to practicing art: as an art history student and studying all of the greats, it can be tempting and easy to want to tap out before you’ve even started.
BM: Yeah, being surrounded on a daily basis by great art, for me, it would be hard to go home and go into the studio and produce something that didn’t live up to those standards – it’s very difficult. It’s like anything, unless you do it a lot unless you practice the old 10 000 hours thing, you know, you are only gonna get to a certain level. And so, if I was to take it up, I would hope that I would take it up in a way that I would put enough into it that I would be satisfied.
SO: That really sounds excellent.
Moving along to one of my final questions: As a Director, have you been able to observe areas where you think the younger generation could bring something unique to offer the evolving industry; maybe more generally, how do you see it possible to bring new people into the arts?
BM: Well, I think the most important thing is for the younger generation to be active within the community and to be telling organizations like the Museum what they want from them. Because it’s really important. You know, we’re fortunate we’ve got a staff that is younger than older, so they would have some understanding of what younger people are looking for. But, all organizations can learn from people outside the organization. You do a place like Museum London a favour if you’re vocal about what you want to see. As I said earlier, I always think of it as we’re both in a position to lead and to follow. We have the expertise and we have knowledge of the art in a particular way and we make judgments about what we think is important and what we want to bring to the community for them to experience. But, at the same time, I think it’s really important for us to follow as well when we’re hearing from the community that they would like to see this or for us to do that – so, it’s not an either-or. But I think it’s really important for people in the community to vocalize what it is that they think is important.
SO: Would you see social media as being a way for these types of vocalizations to take place? Recent times have really spurred the need to transfer communications online, and just the basic fact that developing technology is becoming integral to so many industries today.
BM: Absolutely, it’s very easy for people to get their views across on social media. It’s not like bringing people in to do a formal survey or a focus group or whatever. It’s an opportunity for people in just a couple of seconds to let you know what they think. But, with that said, that can be a very specific or a very limiting way of communicating as well. Let’s say you had some ideas about what the Museum should be doing. Well just taking a little bit of time and writing an email to the Director or to the curators, well, we get those kinds of things and we take them very seriously. I think often people don’t believe that they would be listened to, so they don’t bother. But if I can get one thing across, it’s that the organization does listen and does encourage people to tell us what they’re thinking, so hopefully, that message can get out more.
SO: Certainly – it can be overwhelming as a community member to reach out to the “higher-ups” and not think that you will end up being brushed off. So, I’m sure that many would find it reassuring to hear someone like yourself encourage “old-school” letters in an age of social media, since that is a major consideration when incorporating the perspectives of all types of demographics and generations.
BM: Yes. It also doesn’t have to be what we can do for you, it can be what can we do together. It’s one of the reasons why we did something like work with Western [University] and Fanshawe [College] on the Satellite Gallery. There are often times when we will be approached by community groups and because at the Museum we program a couple of years in advance, we’re not that flexible. But with Satellite Gallery we can work with community groups and do projects there that we wouldn’t be able to do otherwise.
SO: Yes, that space is quite impressive! I actually volunteered with the Museum for a couple of gallery sitting shifts at Satellite last year, and it was interesting to see how that collaboration works between Museum London, Western, and Fanshawe. I’m not familiar with how exactly the Satellite space was established – could you describe how that process unfolded?
BM: Yeah, actually it started because I don’t know if you remember DNA Art Space? So it [Satellite] was next door. It was a project that Alison Butler and Demere Maddock had put together, where they created a gallery and they owned the property. It was a contemporary space for probably four or five years, and during that time they owned the space next door where Satellite is now, and their tenant left and they approached us and asked if we would consider a gallery space there? And so, Patrick Mahon [Western University] and Gary Spearin from Fanshawe, and a few others, we got together and started talking about it and we thought, you know, this could actually work. At the time, Beal was a part of it too, and so we all saw the value in it. Obviously for the educational institutions, the value is in giving opportunities to their students. And, for us, the value was having the opportunity to work with a number of different community groups in a more spontaneous way. And, so we put it together back in 2015 and it has been going ever since.
Entrance to Satellite Gallery from Dundas Street. Image for Museum London’s website.
SO: You’ve said how it is going to be fascinating to watch a new director bring fresh ideas to the Museum, so, reflecting on the last two decades, how have you personally worked to bring new people into the Museum, in terms of programming, volunteering, and even just the general public? Have you noticed any periods when there has been a lull in the public’s interest, but also in terms of volunteers and staff when it comes to facilitating programming – have there ever been any slumps within either of those spheres
BM: I think attendance for the most part has slowly crept up over the years and obviously, you see it when we’ve brought in something sort of higher profile than normal. The Kent Monkman exhibition would be a good example of that. We got a really good, strong attendance for that. But, you know, there are more popular shows and less popular shows, and they are all important to do, it’s just that some connect with the community more than others. Thinking back, the Greg Curnoe show that we brought in from the AGO not long after I got here was hugely popular. It was the most popular show we’ve ever had, which isn’t surprising, but we’ve never really programmed with popularity in mind. We’ve programmed because we’ve thought that this exhibition is important to do. One of the things that our public programming person has done is find creative ways to animate those exhibitions that will bring the public in, but also further their appreciation for those shows.
SO: For sure, I appreciate that perspective about the Museum’s intentions to not only program with popularity in mind, but that an exhibition that is significant in some way is just as important to showcase. That’s the challenge in this industry. I’d say – it’s a question of catering to current and popular demands while remaining true to institutional mandates.
BM: Yeah, it’s always a balancing act because cultural organizations have a whole bunch of stakeholders, and, so, what the general public wants and what the Canada Council says or the Ontario Art Council wants to see, can be very different things. So, it’s about finding that balance, and we’re fortunate that we’ve got a lot of exhibition space, so we’ve always thought that it’s important for everyone coming here, that there’s something for them to connect with. I think part of the reason behind the permanent collection galleries upstairs and doing it the way that we have with the salon hangings makes it so there is something there for everyone. We’ve got a fantastic permanent collection so it should be seen, but I also want people to understand that this community has a really strong history in the artists that have been here for the past 150 years. So, that kind of anchors what we do with the rest of the building. Then, if we want to do something a little bit more challenging in some of the other exhibitions, then we have exactly the balance that we’re looking for.
SO: Yes, and that perfectly segues into my final question. As you have referred to this balancing act between catering to what the public wants to see while having to consider the more philosophical question of the purpose of art itself, what has been your personal philosophy concerning the consumption of art? Has serving as Executive Director for the last two decades influenced your personal philosophy about art?
BM: I think some art is certainly meant to challenge and other art can just be there to provide aesthetic pleasure. The way the art is funded these days and talked about in magazines and online, a lot of it is more socially oriented or politically oriented and those are the times we live in and those are the kinds of concerns that a lot of artists have, and I think that’s important. Art is a way of talking about what’s happening in the world and its always sort of been considered that museums and galleries are spaces to talk about difficult things, and so the fact that we could do the wall of Black Lives Matter posters, is something that is important for us to do. But having an exhibition of a really beautiful abstract painting is something that I think is important to do as well – there’s not just one way to make art, there’s as many ways as there are people making art and I think it’s really important for us to represent that spectrum of what’s happening in our community, in our country, and what the concerns of contemporary artists are.
SO: Brian, I want to thank you for your time. I have enjoyed our conversation and I wish you well in your retirement.
Sarah Oakley, raised in London, Ontario, is currently a fourth-year student at Western University,
studying sociocultural anthropology and art history.