Asking Big Questions: An Interview with Glenbow President & CEO Nicholas R. Bell


by Zoltan Varadi

What is Glenbow? The answer isn’t as simple as you think. With its vast collection – one of the largest of its kind in Western Canada – the museum encompasses contemporary and historical art, cultural and military history, and extensive materials relating to the rich history and traditions of the Indigenous peoples of Treaty 7 region, and also from cultures the world over.

Glenbow’s new President and CEO, Nicholas R. Bell, who took the helm just three weeks ago, has already begun investigating the big questions about ultimately what the museum is and who it is for (short answer: a) many things and b) absolutely everyone) as he prepares the institution for a complete reassessment and revitalization.

Bell’s previous experiences have equipped him with the insight and experience necessary for the task at hand as Glenbow moves into an exciting next phase of existence. Before coming to Glenbow he was Senior Vice President for Curatorial Affairs at Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut, which has even more of a expansive collection than Glenbow, some two million objects. Prior to that, he served as Curator-in-Charge at the Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C. (a branch of the Smithsonian) where he oversaw a successful revitalization project similar in scope to what’s being asked of him here.

While he’s had his plate full of meetings with staff and community leaders while also familiarizing himself with the seemingly innumerable art and artifacts housed within our walls, he found time to chat with Glenbow News about his experience here thus far and where the path forward may take us.

You’ve been in the city all of three weeks now. First impressions?
I have been overwhelmed by how outgoing and friendly everyone has been. I drove from Connecticut to Calgary at the end of October and had a long time on the way here to think about what I was getting myself into. It was such a relief and so encouraging  to arrive in the city in a mud-covered car and on my very first day — two hours after I got here — I went to the Rosza Foundation Awards and it was like jumping into the deep end of hospitality. I met colleagues from the Calgary Opera, Alberta Ballet and the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra and community leaders from across the city, and they really made me feel like family when I had barely gotten out of my car. It was a sign of things to come. Over the last few weeks I’ve had nothing but positive encouragement and people lining up to tell me that anybody who is a friend of Glenbow is a friend of theirs. That makes me feel like part of the family.

What attracted you to this particular institution?
A number of things. I’m from western Canada and after 14 years on the east coast of the United States, I was starting to feel the tug of home. When I began to learn more about the position here and the about the extraordinary wealth of collections and the resources that have been invested in this particular community through Glenbow over the last 50-odd years, I was impressed. When I came here for the first time, I was astonished at just how much there is. For anybody who has ever walked behind the scenes of this museum, it will render you speechless. Probably the four words that would come to mind were: ‘I had no idea.’ I have always enjoyed working in large, messy museums – and I mean ‘messy’ in the positive. I like museums that don’t fit cleanly into particular disciplines. I like museums that collect broadly. I like museums that grapple with what it means to deliver a meaningful program to a community. I could see all of those factors on the surface of Glenbow. So, I was really attracted to the opportunity to come back to western Canada and contribute to a conversation about what it means to be a great museum at the heart of a great Canadian city.

Your previous postings were at the Renwick Gallery and Mystic Seaport Museum. Much like Glenbow, those institutions have extremely diverse, wide-ranging collections. Are there some key lessons you’ve taken from those experiences that you can apply to Glenbow?
I’ve learned a number of things in my career with similar collections and programs. One of them is that you can get really meaningful input from a broad array of stakeholders when you distance yourself from what might be considered traditional boundaries between different types of things, and ask people to respond to things that they might not even be very familiar with. Sometimes you need to see a collection through the eyes of somebody who comes to it for the first time to understand what its potential is. Those stakeholders may be Indigenous, they may be contemporary artists, they may be historians or scholars, but I think that when we take collections – especially historical collections – and open them up to contemporary dialog, we find new paths towards meaning. So that was particularly my experience in Connecticut where we had a collection of approximately two million artifacts and made a concerted effort to engage contemporary voices outside of the traditional curatorial authority to explore how [those objects] could be explored meaningfully. [Audiences] might not understand how these historical collections could be relevant to them. If I just went down the street right now and asked people, ‘do you think a collection of x, y and z is meaningful to your life?’ probably a lot of people would say, ‘I don’t know. Why? Why would it be?’ Sometimes when you engage with unconventional actors – people who are articulate and curious and are used to being outside of their own comfort zone – you find paths to relevance that may be elusive to a general audience.

I see from your Instagram you’ve been busy exploring behind the scenes here at Glenbow – what’s caught your attention from the collection so far?
I’ve already learned that what I should be doing pretty regularly is to go down to the photo studio. Owen [Melenka, Glenbow staff photographer] will have different things out every day for photography that will give me a complete cross section of what’s in the museum. The first time that I did that, I was astonished to see materials that were made by Japanese-Canadians who were interred in southern Alberta. When I was in Washington, we worked on exhibition called The Art of Gaman, which was specifically a look at creative practices in Japanese-American internment camps and all of the ways in which people who are under incredibly difficult situations actually created art and demonstrated individuality. So it was really powerful for me to see similar collections here in this very building. It gives you a sense that we can be under the worst conditions imaginable and still find the strength to express who we are.

What accomplishment from your previous experiences are you most proud of?
I’d have to say that the biggest or most humbling success of my career was being given the opportunity to relaunch the program [at the Renwick Gallery at the Smithsonian] in Washington, D.C. in conjunction with a major renovation. It taught me that when a building is failing – in this case it was an 1859 building – and you have to address its infrastructure, it provides an opportunity to step back from your program and begin to ask some of the big questions. What are we here for? Why do we do this? What are we trying to achieve? Why are we relevant? Perhaps the most fortunate moment of my career was reintroducing the city of Washington, D.C. to that museum upon its completion and seeing the impact of a diverse community discovering it as if it were for the first time. It was a revitalization of that museum that saw its attendance increase dramatically.

Much of your communications thus far, be it with the media or staff, has focused on revitalization. At this stage, what does that look like?
Revitalization to me is multi-pronged. The conversation probably began well before I arrived, because this building has issues. Similar to the work that we did in Washington, this building’s physical challenges actually create the opportunity to have precisely that same conversation both with our internal stakeholders and with the community, and, arguably, with Canadians. What is a major museum at the core of a major Canadian city for? A revitalization can not only be an infrastructural rejuvenation of a facility, it can be the opportunity to revisit your program and try and strive to answer the question of how it can create the most meaning for the people it was built to serve. This museum was built to steward history, art and culture for the people of Alberta, and, by extension, every Canadian and visitor to this city. We have an obligation and a duty to revisit that question on a regular basis but sometimes the urgency doesn’t develop until your building starts to push you.

You can follow Nicholas on Instagram at @nicholas.r.bell.

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