‘Ottawa’ ‘Our Aspiration is to Be Counted Amongst the Top Museums in the World’: ROM CEO Josh Basseches
Josh Basseches, 54, is settling into his new job as the director and chief executive officer of the Royal Ontario Museum by visiting two of the 33 galleries every week. It’s the best way to get to know the collection of more than 6 million objects.
Born and raised in Washington, D.C. Basseches, 54, came to the ROM in March from the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, where he was deputy director. In that role, he helped modernize the museum and raise $600 million in a recent capital campaign. Prior to that, he served as executive director of the Harvard Museum of Natural History.
He holds an MBA from Harvard Business School, an MA from Boston University, a BA from Amherst College and is completing a doctorate in art history at Boston University.
Basseches is married to Amy Perry Basseches and they now live in Toronto with their daughter and son.
Q: The ROM, which operates as a Crown corporation of Ontario, has come under some criticism in the past with regard to its financial situation. Can you comment on the outlook for the museum?
A: In the fiscal year that just ended, the ROM had one of its best years yet on a number of metrics. We had our most attended year with 1.1 million visitors. And we’re ending with a surplus of about $1.3 million.
In addition, we just made a $3.2 million payment to the Ontario Financing Authority on our bond debt of about $30 million. Given that we’re in a low-interest rate environment we feel very comfortable with that. Most similar institutions hold $80 million to $150 million, so to me this is a very appropriate and manageable part of our balance sheet.
And setting aside whatever we address through our operations, we have pledges that cover about $14 million of the $30 million, so it’s quite modest for an operating budget in the mid-$50 million range.
Q: What attracted you to the ROM?
A: I knew it was one of the great museums of Canada and North America. We have collections that are global in nature and range across the arenas of art, culture and nature. And we have about 75 exceptional curators and researchers.
We’re one of the few museums internationally that have collections that cut across such a wide area. When you think of how scholarship, creativity and knowledge function in the 21st Century, it’s a very different environment from the 19th and early 20th centuries when most encyclopedic museums were set up.
They wanted to segment different types of knowledge. We’re interested in connecting knowledge and that’s part of being in the digital world too. And that’s something we want to build on.
Q: What’s your vision for the museum?
A: We want to be a thought leader in key areas. Our aspiration is to be counted amongst the top museums in the world. We want to be an innovator and we have a deep commitment to education and youth.
We can inspire creativity and awe and wonder so there is an emotional component, as well as an intellectual and data-driven component.
We recently hired Mark Keating in a newly created role of chief information officer and we want to invest in the digital infrastructure of the museum. I believe digital tools can expand people’s experience and create a platform for exploring their curiosity sparked by their engagement with authentic object.
People don’t want to be passive – we need to provide launching points for people to have their own adventure. And the person who helps make that happen needs to be part of the C-Suite.
Q: Can you tell me about any recent acquisitions?
A: We’re just in the process of buying a skeleton of an Ankylosaurus, which is one of those wonderful dinosaurs with a club tail and armoured plates. And it’s one of the few skeletons with fossilized skin. It will probably be a couple of years before it’s on the floor.
Q: What can businesses learn from museums?
A: Business can be very focused on the short-term, quarterly profits and reports that can guide strategy – sometimes in less productive ways. This museum is over 100 years old, my last museum was 217 years old, and Harvard’s museum dates back to 1859. Being in institutions like this allows you to think about the long-term and legacy.
Q: Do you have any reading recommendations?
A: I studied at Harvard Business School and had classes with Michael Porter. I’ve always thought his book Competitive Advantage was wonderful. It’s a bit tried and true but I’ve found it very valuable. And I regularly read the Harvard Business Review.
Q: Who are your role models?
A: I worked very closely with Drew Faust, the president of Harvard University, and I’ve always been impressed with her leadership. She’s very strategic and knowledgeable. And Dan Monroe, who is the director at Peabody Essex Museum, is also a role model. He always emphasized the importance of constantly innovating.
Q: Are there any other plans for development at the ROM?
A: We want to make the first floor more accessible and welcoming and to make the museum experience more intuitive.
I want to figure out how this building can be a vibrant hub of activity in the evening, as well as during the day. We are like that on Friday nights with our live program, which attracts more than 3,000 people. But I want to look at the other nights of the week and see how we can truly throw our doors open wide to the public and make this feel like their place.