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Art & Architecture New ROM CEO Joshua Basseches isn’t fazed by the major institution’s debt

Joshua Basseches, the new CEO and President of the Royal Ontario museum, shows off the soon-to-open Tattoos: Ritual. Identity. Obsession. Art. exhibit at the museum on March 31 2016.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

If there's one word or mantra Joshua Basseches might offer to patrons, potential patrons and observers of the Royal Ontario Museum these days, it might be "relax."

The new director and chief executive officer of the ROM didn't utter that semi-command once during an interview the other morning in a Toronto hotel restaurant as part of a series of conversations to mark the start of his five-year tenure at Canada's largest museum of the natural and human worlds. But you feel he could have.

You see, as much as the 102-year-old ROM is respected, even beloved, people also like to fret and kvetch about it. How come it didn't get that exhibition? And why did it put on that show? And aren't admissions too high? And why aren't there more visitors? Can't something – anything! – be done about the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal that Daniel Libeskind designed? Are donors finally emptying their pockets and honouring their pledges? Is the outstanding debt from the $300-million Renaissance ROM project too burdensome?

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Basseches, 54, confessed to a measure of bemusement at these anxieties. A Harvard Business School graduate who comes to the ROM from a 12-year stint at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., where, most recently as deputy director/chief operating officer, he helped to drive a $600-million (U.S.) endowment and capital campaign to a successful conclusion, he is keen and happy to be in Toronto.

The ROM is "a singular institution in North America," with "astonishing breadth" in it encyclopedic collections and "remarkable curatorial capacity," he declared. It had close to 1.1 million visitors in 2015-16, likely the largest yearly attendance in the museum's history. A show of Pompeii artifacts alone drew almost 275,000 visitors over six months or so.

Meanwhile, the Ontario Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport, under which ROM operates as a Crown corporation, claims to be "very pleased" with the museum's activities while continuing to cover as much as 55 per cent of its operating expenses.

In short, what's not to like?

Married, with a daughter and son, Basseches thinks that two of the benefits he brings to his new employer are his freshness as an outsider and an international perspective.

Take the matter of ROM's finances. "Part of my work in the past was as a management consultant to museums, doing strategic and business planning for museums," he noted. "So I've looked at a lot of balance sheets, a lot of financial statements. … As you can imagine, in thinking about coming to the ROM, there's a meaningful amount of due diligence that one does. And from the lens I looked through, my sense is that, financially, the ROM is in extremely sound shape. In fact, I wouldn't have come here, frankly, if I thought there were large problems that I thought weren't being addressed.

"I know there's a lot of focus on the issue of debt here," he continued. "But debt is a tool; it's not a good thing or bad thing, inherently. When I look at the issue of debt in a variety of institutions, I look at peer institutions. I look at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, which has $165-million (U.S.) in debt, give or take, or I look at the American Natural History Museum in New York, which has, I believe, $260-million in debt, or the L.A. County Museum of Art, another wonderful institution that, I think, has $340-million in debt. So to me, the slightly less than $30-million in debt the ROM has is very manageable.

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"More than half of that is covered by donor commitments" – which, Basseches said, he has been assured are being met after The Globe and Mail reported last spring that several donors, six years on from Renaissance ROM's completion, had yet to fulfill their obligations. "I think we'll look forward to covering the rest in the near future so that the entire debt is secured. [It] doesn't represent any material concern for me."

Indeed, he said, the ROM made a payment this week of just over $3-million to the Ontario Financing Authority, the holder of the debt.

"I think it's time for the press and the community to turn the corner on things," he said. Even the oft-abused Crystal has achieved many of its intended goals. "Museums are large, complex institutions." The Crystal was a physical and architectural signal of sorts to the community that the ROM was undergoing a "reinvention … as a very contemporary institution. …

"What I look forward to is reinventing the experience of the museum … enhancing its porosity," he said.

Post-Crystal, there's a "sense that the [ROM] has been readying itself for the next journey, if you will" – to become one of North America's great museums, maybe even one of the world's, while having "a meaningful role in shaping what it means to be a 21st-century museum." In part, he said, this means "moving away from the notion of the museum as this disembodied authoritative voice" to the realization that "people want to own or curate their own experience."

Two years ago, the ROM announced the start of a $15-million Love the ROM Centennial Campaign. Included in that was the Welcome Project, a $4-million initiative to raise money for the "warming up" of the Crystal interior, particularly the entrance and lobby areas, as well as the museum's exterior street spaces.

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But the project seemed to go into abeyance, not least because of the announcement by Janet Carding in the fall of 2014 that, come spring, 2015, she would be relinquishing the ROM leadership she had assumed in 2010.

Today, though, the project "is very much still happening," Basseches said. "And it's one area I'll be jumping into fully now that I am here." He hinted that it probably will be much bigger and more expensive than originally envisaged. How much more expensive he wouldn't say – but, simply put, get ready for another round of fundraising.

Basseches is unapologetic about this. "Any time you've been in a building for five or 10 years, you start to think about ways to inhabit it and live in it more successfully," he said, and this includes not just the Crystal but the heritage sections of the institution.

"It's trite to say yet true nevertheless: Support follows vision. We're now roughly nine years out from the opening of the Crystal. … Beginning to talk with our board and beginning to talk to our donors, there's a lot of pent-up excitement about where we're heading and the ability to support that venture. …

"I will say, and I will say as a bit of a teaser, and only metaphorically, our goal is to throw the doors of the museum even more wide open. And that I think that is a conceptual framework that may see some physical expression."

Possible translation: other entrances, including the restoration of the Queen's Park door that was shuttered almost a decade ago.

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