Heather Conway has been a top executive at high-profile public companies including Toronto-Dominion Bank and Alliance Atlantis Communications Inc. After a stint as CEO of public relations firm Edelman Canada, she made a sharp shift out of the private sector, recently taking on the newly created position of chief business officer at one of Canada’s premier cultural institutions, the Art Gallery of Ontario.
What is a chief business officer?
It is a strange title. I’ve certainly never encountered it before. I think it was [chosen]in part to distinguish it from a chief operating officer role. And obviously it is not the CEO role.
It’s to capture the fact that there are revenue-generating businesses within the gallery, and those are all reporting in to me – the gift shop, the restaurants, the café, the espresso bar. And there are various other bits of revenue … memberships and visitor experience. Anything that generates funds. [I also run]marketing, branding and communications.
Is there a pattern to your career?
I like to be in organizations that are at a point … where they can go in multiple directions – in critical moments of change and decision-making.
I arrived at TD at a time of dramatic leadership change. A bank that had been No. 5 for decades became No. 2 in five years. That was like sitting on a rocket. When I went to Alliance Atlantis, it was [deciding whether to be]a producer or a film distributor.
At the AGO, the horizon is probably longer, but [we have to decide]how do we stay relevant, how do we engage [the public] and how do we continue to have excellence in our art as we are confronted with a digital world where people can get everything now and replicate it 500 times.
To be sustainable, do art galleries have to be more plugged in to their audience’s desires?
Absolutely. [In the past]the challenge for museums [was that]people had to come to us to engage. The tools of social media now allow us to go to them, and extend the invitation in different ways. Increasingly, social media is how people engage with their interests, and with the community of people who share that interest.
From years of research [we know that]people who have visited an art institution as a child are much more likely to continue to engage with art museums through their lives, because they had a positive early experience. So it is critically important that we continue to reach out to younger audiences, school kids, parents with children, and invite them into the space and have programming and content that is engaging and relevant to them.
How do you get more people in the door?
One of the primary issues is accessibility. That means [looking at]your hours of operation, your pricing, your offerings in food and beverage. If you want to bring in families with kids, you need kids’ meals, and kids’ stuff in the gift shop.
But art is at the heart of everything that we do. That is not going to change. We are not Canada’s Wonderland, and that’s okay. When you come to the Art Gallery of Ontario, we want you to have an experience that has art at its absolute core.
How is this organization different from a private company?
I haven’t yet encountered a person in the building who can’t have a conversation about art. Everybody has a passionate engagement with art. That’s different from the private sector where people do their job, but their passion is their home life. Here, that line is much fuzzier. Their passion is partly what they do every day, and their workplace is a place that allows them to do that.
That is very soul-satisfying for me, because I am an art fan. Art is a passion for me; when I travel I don’t go to beaches, I go to galleries. So this is a great fit for me from that perspective.
Are you an artist yourself?
I am. My preference is sculpture, which is a very difficult thing to do casually because it requires kilns and all the rest of it. But I also draw and paint.
How important is it to have blockbuster shows?
There is an expectation that we will bring the best art that we can. We want important shows [but we also]want shows that might be challenging to people.
Is the AGO brand crucial to its marketing?
In a complicated world, where people are overloaded with information, brands can be a very effective filter. I want people to think of the AGO as a place for something interesting, for an enjoyable experience. So from that perspective, the brand is critically important.
What other galleries around the world do you admire?
The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis is a great institution. I haven’t visited that city a lot, but when I am there, I go see the Walker. I never go to London without going to the Tate Modern.
Do you think you can get to a point where people say: ‘I never go to Toronto without going to the AGO’?
I hope so. Part of my job is to make that so. And that is a great challenge.
How did you end up in business?
When I was picking my [university]major, I [had to choose]between fine art and economics. I ended up choosing economics because I thought I’d never have the chance to study it again, and would regret that if I missed that opportunity. So I didn’t follow the fine art route. [But]art has been with me all my life.
What is your approach to managing people?
People want to do a good job. That sounds like a simple statement, but it’s a truth that many managers don’t believe. A lot of managers run around thinking that people are trying to shirk their responsibilities or they are trying not to work. A bad manager is one who isn’t trying to help their people do a good job, and who lets them go home with their guts churning because they feel like they are failing and they don’t know why. I don’t blame that worker. I blame that manager for not identifying how to best use that person.
Why is art important?
It matters more and more in a world when everything is digital, replaceable and disposable. There is value in artisanal things, whether it is a movie, a book, a poem, an artifact, or a 500-year old painting.
I know in my gut that this is more and more important to our humanity, to our ability to connect to each other. It may sound very un-businesslike on one level, but if we don’t have things that touch us and connect us at our most human, most fundamental level, why are we all here?
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Title: Chief business officer, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto
Born in Victoria; 49 years old.
BA in economics, Queen’s University, Kingston.
MA in industrial relations, University of Warwick, England.
1989: Worked as special assistant to then-finance minister Michael Wilson.
1995: Joined Toronto-Dominion Bank, becoming executive vice-president of corporate and public affairs in 1999.
2001-2007: Executive vice-president of media company Alliance Atlantis.
2009-2011: CEO of Edelman Canada.
2011: Named chief business officer of the AGO.