The Museum of Vancouver has a problem. Despite an award-winning rebranding, programming of excellent, edgy exhibitions and super smart outreach that has brought a new, younger crowd into the museum, the MOV – tucked away in residential Kits Point – is up against an out-of-sight, out-of-mind challenge. It may have a view to die for, but in a city that knows the value of location, location, location, the museum is hemmed in by the beautiful spot where it sits.
"We're not downtown, and look around the world: What city museum is not in the core of the city?" CEO Nancy Noble says. "We want to be downtown."
This week, the museum – which is not run by the city but relies on city hall for its largest operating grant – launched a study to identify possible sites for such a move.
"I've seen this institution do a whole lot of things and do incredibly good work and fail to sort of have a breakthrough, audience-wise. And I think that it's the location," says director of collections and exhibitions Joan Seidl, who has been with the museum for more than 20 years. "This was set up as a kind of cultural precinct in the 1960s when planners were fascinated with that idea. … And it is a lovely location. The view out of our office windows is breathtaking, but I would rather be looking at cigarette butts on the street corner and be downtown. Really, it's too suburban. It just feels wrong also, for the kinds of subjects that we want to talk about and address. We need to be in the sort of dirty, throbbing heart of the city."
In Vanier Park, the MOV shares a home with the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre, and the building is largely identified by the public as the planetarium. When it opened in 1968, it resembled a futuristic Haida hat, but today it's kind of sad-looking, with its cavernous, too often empty lobby, and stained fountain bottoms outside. Want a bite to eat? The vending machines in the basement are your only option. This is not the museum experience today's visiting public demands.
If the public can even find it. The closest bus stop is blocks away on Cornwall Street. Local residents have fought the presence of buses on Kits Point, so only one of those hop-on, hop-off bus companies is permitted. Yes, you can take a False Creek Ferry to the nearby Maritime Museum, but that's not always convenient. Walk-up traffic is non-existent.
"We don't get any foot traffic," says Ms. Noble. "And the notion that people who are walking along the seawall are coming to the museum is [inaccurate]. They're walking their dog, they're out for a stroll. They're not coming to a cultural institution."
The MOV has had its eye on the former provincial courthouse downtown – currently occupied by the Vancouver Art Gallery – and hopes to move to a new site. While this would be a great spot for the MOV in terms of the building's location and history, the MOV can't put all its relocation eggs in this basket for a variety of reasons (for one, the VAG leaving the site is not a sure thing). So a local consultant has been hired to investigate other possibilities, too. For example, the removal of the viaducts could create an opportunity east of downtown, where the cultural community has largely shifted.
In the meantime, the MOV is doing remarkable things with its programming, more than doubling its members since its 2009 rebranding and at the same time seeing their average age drop. The current Tobias Wong exhibition is a fine example of an exciting, provocative show about an important Vancouver figure (the visionary designer died in New York two years ago). You didn't have to be a shoe aficionado to enjoy the comprehensive John Fluevog exhibition the museum mounted in 2010, or South Asian to appreciate last year's Bhangra.me show. But with each of these – and other – exhibitions, the MOV has deliberately exposed itself to new visitors.
"It's a layering of different communities. So it's not the usual Point Grey or Kitsilano crowd that comes here," says Hanna Cho, curator of engagement and dialogue. "You have our traditional museum members mixing with younger, curious folks from East Van."
The public engagement around these exhibitions has opened up the museum, often at night, to those hipper crowds looking for a new experience. For example, next month the MOV will install a pop-up tattoo parlour to complement the Wong show, where tattoos figure prominently.
There's more: In January, the MOV will collaborate with the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival on an interactive performance called Vancouver, I Love You But You're Bringing Me Down, where Vancouverites will rant on-stage about the city they at times love to hate. The title of what's meant to be an annual event comes from Wong's favourite song about New York.
In February, a new exhibition – Sex Talk in the City – will examine sexual education, awareness and evolution in Vancouver. (Yes, it launches Feb. 14.) There's a soon-to-be-available app that will guide people through two neon walking tours of Vancouver. And next week, the MOV will launch a line of stylish Vancouver history-related merchandise – from affordable trinkets (Smilin' Buddha Cabaret key chains, Cascade Brewery beer mugs) to upscale housewares ($6,000 area rugs based on, for example, the Stanley Cup riot boards, or old city bus rolls). Don't bother looking in kitschy souvenir stores; they're being sold at shops such as Country Furniture and Vancouver Special.
It's all good – but to really engage Vancouver, museum officials believe a move is essential.
"There is a lot of support for us moving," says Ms. Noble, who cites a number of conversations she had at the MOV's recent fundraising dinner – the first of its kind during her tenure (she marks seven years at the museum this Monday). "Because I think people recognize that we're doing the right things, we're on the right track, we're starting to make some inroads, but there's going to be a ceiling here and we're just not going to break through that ceiling."