Most people wouldn’t think of Mauro Vescera as a disruptor. In fact, the gracious and eloquent CEO of the Museum of Vancouver has a curriculum vitae that puts him firmly in the establishment.
Vescera worked for 12 years at the Vancouver Foundation where he oversaw grants in environment, arts, and education. He was chair of the Gordon and Marion Smith Foundation and executive director of the Italian Cultural Centre. And he holds a master’s degree in international affairs from Johns Hopkins University.
But on a tour of his institution in Vanier Park, Vescera comes across like an outspoken voice for reform in the hidebound world of museums. He bluntly tells Pancouver that the environmental sector has done a far better job in making the climate a mainstream issue than museums have.
“I was stunned that the museums weren’t in the conversation around climate change,” Vescera says. “They kind of felt it wasn’t their area.”
He acknowledges that there have been exhibitions on this topic, including at the Vancouver Art Gallery and Museum of Vancouver. But he maintains that the sector as a whole has been very slow to embrace the circular economy in their own operations.
“How do you connect to sustainability writ large?” Vescera asks. “How do you do that by repurposing materials, recycling materials, creating toolkits for others, using materials that aren’t toxic—that are more sustainable—and then how do we design stuff?”
It saddens him that curators can design exhibitions that look great, but often afterward, these materials are not re-used. So, he decided to do something about this.
Vescera helps museums embrace sustainability
Under his leadership over the past five-and-a-half years, the Museum of Vancouver has taken dramatic steps to integrate the environment into its ethos. One of the institution’s flagship initiatives is called Sustainability, Arts and Green Environments, a.k.a. SAGE. It’s rooted in helping re-orient museums become “vital players in addressing the global climate crisis”.
Vescera traces the origins of SAGE to a letter by a former minister of Canadian heritage, Steven Guilbeault. He called on museums and galleries to get more involved in climate change.
“We went forward with a little grant called SEED to develop the concept,” Vescera says. “Then we came up with this idea—Sustainability, Arts and Green Environments—and green ecosystems.”
His wife, Louise, is co-founder and co-owner of Recycling Alternative. Therefore, Vescera was already well-versed in sustainability. As part of SAGE, the Museum of Vancouver brought people together who worked in the arts and environmental sectors, along with museum officials, academic sustainability experts, and staff from Vancouver Civic Theatres.
“Then, of course, through all the fabrication and recycling companies and film upcyclers, we’re all of the sudden connected to potentially more materials and more resources,” Vescera says. “The next thing we’re going to do is to look for deconstructed materials or things we can borrow and adapt, rather than throwing it away and starting all over.”
SAGE is multi-faceted. One objective is to connect the Museum of Vancouver’s Indigenous knowledge repatriation and engagement activities with existing assets.
MOV exhibitions tread new ground
Rather than simply staging one-off exhibitions—where people come, learn, and leave—the museum invites community engagement on important issues.
“We have a responsibility to address social justice and equity and reconciliation and climate change,” Vescera insists.
The museum has incorporated this approach in exhibitions such as Reclaim + Repair: The Mahogany Project, That Which Sustains Us, and the upcoming Refuge Canada, which was created by the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21.
In Reclaim + Repair, the museum worked with 31 emerging and experienced designers to create 22 objects from reclaimed mahogany. The works, including a mahogany surfboard and a mahogany guitar, are available for sale. Some of the proceeds will benefit Indigenous-led reforestation initiatives in Central America.
That Which Sustains Us focuses on how Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples have interacted with forests in Metro Vancouver over various generations. The museum’s curator of Indigenous collections and engagement, Sharon Fortney, sought input from 18 knowledge holders from three local First Nations.
“They said to her, ‘No, we don’t want chronology. We’re looking at this differently,’ ” Vescera says. “It’s not about time. It’s about elements—water, land, resources—and the stewardship of them.”
Lessons from Italy
Meanwhile, Refuge 21, which opens on October 12, showcases the experiences of waves of refugees to Canada since the Second World War. According to Vescera, it connects well to another exhibition, GHETTO: How Can We Live Together? It’s a “theoretical rezoning project that proposes the development of housing for refugees”.
Created by Henriquez Partners Architects in collaboration with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the European Cultural Centre, GHETTO suggests that this housing could be financed through the sale of timeshare condominiums to American tourists. SFU Public Square supported a public-facing open house.
Vescera is of Italian ancestry. It’s clear that this heritage has influenced his thinking about museums. On a lighter note, he jokes that he can’t stay away from gardens.
He also points out that in Italy, design is seen as art. However in Canada, he’s observed that design tends to be identified with retail or commercial uses.
“It’s not treated as an art form [like] a painting or sculpture,” Vescera says. “I see it differently. It has so many applications to how we live and how we design our lives.”
It’s one reason why the Museum of Vancouver hosted an exhibition celebrating deceased, Vancouver-born designer and artist Tobias Wong. It included more than than 70 works by Wong, who became a design star in New York City, where he died in 2010.
Indigenous visitors invited into the vault
Another example of Vescera’s out-of-the-box thinking came when he invited Haida Nation artists into the museum’s vault so that they could observe “their belongings”.
“We call them belongings,” the CEO says. “We don’t act like they are ours. They don’t belong to us.”
He quickly adds that Indigenous people are not “emptying out the vault” and taking everything back to their reserves.
“They are very respectful,” Vescera emphasizes. “It’s really the important pieces that they want to have conversations about.”
According to Vescera, they want to know where artifacts are and have an opportunity to see them.
Cease Wyss (T’uy’t’tanat) and her daughter, Senaqwila, discuss the Unity Indigenous Plant Garden.
Art-speak and an Indigenous garden
He also admits that people in the museum sector can be accused of using jargon—their own exclusive language—which can undermine public trust.
“We’re guilty of art-speak, right?” he says. “You alienate people—and arts is not about that. It’s about inviting and including.”
That’s another issue that he’s trying to address.
In addition, Vescera believes it’s important to bring different generations into the process. To cite one example, the Museum of Vancouver recruited kids from nearby Henry Hudson Elementary to help create a garden in some greenspace visible through some windows. They pulled out bamboo and periwinkle.
“Never feed them vegetarian pizzas because that didn’t go over so well,” Vescera quips.
The Sitka and North foundations, along with TD, financed this initiative. The Vancouver park board created signage. And local First Nations offered their advice on what became known as the Unity Indigenous Plant Garden.
“We hired Cease Wyss (T’uy’t’tanat), who, of course, is a landscaper” he recalls. “Her team came in here with her daughter [Senaqwila].”
Now, plants in this garden are all linked to local Indigenous culture and are named in Indigenous languages. And children can visit and learn about the medicinal uses of this flora.
Mauro Vescera talks about various exhibitions with a delegation of Taiwanese visitors to Vancouver.
Contemporary elements add perspective
Over the years, many festivals, museums, and art galleries in Metro Vancouver have demonstrated a tendency to curate Indigenous content from across Canada. This approach, decried by Dutch settler Irwin Oostindie as “Pan-Nativism”, can come at the cost of highlighting work by Coast Salish artists upon whose traditional territories these exhibitions are held.
The Museum of Vancouver has, on the other hand, eagerly embraced input from local First Nations. This has occurred through exhibitions such as That Which Sustains Us and c̓əsnaʔəm: The City Before the City. In these ways, the 129-year-old museum is most certainly not practising Pan-Nativism.
Furthermore, the Museum of Vancouver was the first arts organization in the city to bring representatives of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh onto its board of directors, according to Vescera.
Moreover, Vescera says that rather than simply focusing on the past, the Museum of Vancouver prefers to add contemporary elements. This can come through artistic works or by incorporating new perspectives to address an issue moving forward.
“That’s our approach now—to be more interactive and less passive,” Vescera says.