It takes a certain type of individual to blow a hole in the side of a century old institution and then fill it with a quarter of a billion dollars worth of glass and aluminum. For better or worse, William Thorsell is that individual.
Before arriving at his current gig as the director and CEO of the Royal Ontario Museum, Thorsell spent a decade as the editor-in-chief of the Globe and Mail where he spearheaded a complete redesign of the paper--scrapping the 140-year-old gothic name plate for the much cleaner serif the paper uses today.
Once at the ROM Thorsell furthered his reputation as an agent of change by mounting a nearly $300 million renovation of the building that again, totally transformed the institution, most notably by adding the Lee-Chin Crystal to the buildings north facing façade. The jarring explosion of glass and aluminum striking out onto Bloor Street has not only transformed the museum, but the entire neighbourhood.
But for a man so susceptible to controversy, Thorsell has a surprisingly Zen-like demeanor. He's dressed casually in a pressed white dress shirt with an open collar. His voice is calm, but sure. He speaks with the kind of muted confidence that only a man with such measurable accomplishments can.
In August he will be stepping down from the ROM after ten years to pursue new, unspecified challenges.
What is your day job?
I'm director and CEO of the Royal Ontario Museum. That means I'm responsible for what goes on here or doesn't go on here: what new galleries are we going to produce, what new exhibitions and programs are we going to produce, how are we going to keep developing the museum as a part of the life of the city in which it becomes a more insistent part of the life of the city, not an asset you turn to once in a while, but a place with a stronger role in the life of the city.
Was that your intent with the recent renovations?
When I came here, the real draw for me was the opportunity to see whether we could do something like this. We didn't have money, we didn't really have an explicit plan, but I had a great sense that the Royal Ontario Museum wanted to join the reinvention of museums that started in Europe and the United States. We were coming late to the table, but it was a great opportunity to rethink not just the physical structure, but also the personality of the place and how it relates to the public.
How have those goals changed over the course of your run as president and CEO?
I think we sort of moved from hardware to software. The first six or seven years was renovating the existing buildings, building the Lee Chin Crystal and getting new galleries in place. So the big question that sort of comes up once its done is "what's it for?"
So where the agenda has really taken us now is in the programming side. Because we have both natural histories, of the environment, and of world cultures here - both mandates in one building - we're getting more journalistic than I would have thought we would have.
We're developing all kinds of programs for the next year or two, which get argumentative, raise questions, offer points of view, and create debates. Whether it's the environment, nature, water all those things or whether it's multiculturalism and the nature of countries and where they're going.
I think right now, the museum is developing what I call a "new agora", like a public square. Since we have both mandates of nature and culture it's just up to our imaginations to use the collections and what they say to deal with issues in contemporary culture, deal with contemporary environmental issues, not just be flat education.
Is that a result of your own background in news?
I think it is, certainly in part, but we've also learned from our public that they like that. They sort of expect us now to get off the fence and get out there and take the lead in bringing issues forward. They don't expect the museum to just sit there and be didactic and tell you "the truth."
It's a much more engaged relationship with all sorts of different people. The other thing of course is that Toronto and Southern Ontario has changed so much that now we're really out to build in to all these new communities. Make sure that this is their place too. That it's not just owned by the old establishment, it's got to be owned by the South Asian community, the Chinese, all these different people and because we have all these different programs we can reach them in different ways.
How often does your work take you abroad?
It could have been a lot more often except for the renovations at the ROM. I really focused on our site and getting this museum refocused.
My successor, because I'm leaving here at the end of August after 10 years, will be more back in the normal museum world of building those international relationships.
When you travel, what do you miss about Toronto?
The homogeneity of foreign places is often very striking. You go to nations, Hungary for example, you go out to dinner every night to a Hungarian restaurant, you're standing on the street corner and after five days, all of a sudden you realize all those people waiting for the light to change across the street are Hungarians. We live in a society where we just assume we're running into all these different cultures. The homogeneity is often interesting to a degree, but I like coming into the open air of our city.
And vice versa, when you're traveling, are you introduced to things that you think Toronto could adopt?
Absolutely and the biggest one of those is the quality of public space in major cities elsewhere, it's much, much higher than Toronto.
You come back here and it's just a disgrace, it's a mess. Our streets and parks and major public spaces are a disgrace, our roads, our sidewalks, and our street furniture, the posters splattered on everything, the rusted poles, and the plague of signage. There's no sense of design or elegance in our public spaces in Toronto and it's very noticeable.
So the human situation in Toronto is good, I think a lot of the private and public buildings are getting better, but the public space is a shock and I think when visitors come to Toronto they often remark in a kind way that the nice word for it is "funky" instead of "junky", but it's junky.
Any travel tips or tricks?
I always try to arrive where I'm going a day early. Not just a night early, but a whole day early because I think you're much more effective for whatever purpose you're going there for if you take a whole day and get up late and wander around get acculturated a little bit.
Actually, places like Europe, Europe is very close - like seven hours to London, so it's great to go over during the day. Overnight flying to me is the cruelest of cruel, so if I can ever book day flights instead of night flights I'll do that.
Aisle or Window?
Oh, I'll always go to the window. Who would sit in the aisle and get bashed by everybody's big bum going by and the carts and everything else. I get over to the window and get my book or whatever I'm going to be doing and curl up against the wall.
You mentioned you're leaving the ROM in August. Do you have plans for what's next?
No, I'm available. I'm taking offers. I'm going to probably be out there with the rest of the world lining up for job interviews somewhere. But I do want to take on something else.
I think that ten years is the right time to leave. I could have stayed on here, but in my experience the institution needs new skill sets after about a decade. Particularly in a distinctive decade like this and if you really want that institution to thrive, there should be a new energy, a new skill set, a new passion.
For ones own self as well, it's good to throw yourself out of your nest every once in a while. It's not easy, but to say to yourself "I know I need to wake up again too."
I very much enjoy building though. I enjoy the renovating, the building and the physical form--and I like Toronto. I'd like to get into something about building in Toronto. It could be how to address the built form in Toronto - planning, building, development issues - maybe waterfront development.
Perhaps something in public space?
Yes, public space maybe. I could become the czar of public space in Toronto and I guarantee that in ten years the city would look a lot better than it does today.