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BMO donates $1M and offers to sell building to Themuseum

Acquisition of bank building would give THEMUSEUM opportunity to build a hub for arts and culture

Article via The Record

KITCHENER — In a bold move to create a world-class hub for arts and culture in downtown Kitchener, BMO is donating $1 million to THEMUSEUM.

The bank also announced Monday a sole purchaser agreement that gives THEMUSEUM several months to raise another $2 million to buy the BMO building, located at the corner of King and Queen streets, right next door to the museum.

Acquiring the building would give THEMUSEUM the extra space it has long wanted so it can bring international exhibits to the city and partner with other groups in music, film, dance, theatre and digital arts.

“This is a really interesting opportunity for us to do something big for the community,” said Julie Barker-Merz, BMO’s senior vice-president for southwestern Ontario.

She has sat on THEMUSEUM’s board of directors for years, and strongly supports its vision for an expanded presence in the city core that includes a variety of cultural offerings.

“So I have full confidence we will be putting the dollars to good use,” she said.

In announcing the donation and purchase agreement, Barker-Merz invited individuals and organizations from around Waterloo Region to collaborate with THEMUSEUM to create a new centre.

“My expectation is that some of our colleagues in the arts and culture community will be at that table, and come together and be part of that future space,” said Barker-Merz. “That’s the piece that really excites me.”

THEMUSEUM plans to raise money and hopes to close the deal to buy the bank building by the end of November. BMO says the timing is right because it wants to relocate to a smaller building within blocks of its current location, but it is not ready to say where.

Barker-Merz wants the donation, and the sale of the bank building to serve as a catalyst for more arts and culture, bolstering the continuing revitalization of the city core. In recent years, startups have moved into and expanded in the downtown in growing numbers, and new restaurants and condo developments have followed. The arts and culture sector has not expanded at the same pace, and Barker-Merz wants that to change.

“What’s important to me is that this is bigger than THEMUSEUM,” she said. “It has to be inclusive of all things arts and culture.”

David Marskell, THEMUSEUM’s chief executive officer, said BMO has provided a unique opportunity to change the cultural landscape in the city.

“I think we need to recognize that what BMO is doing is setting the stage for a critical mass of art and culture on that block,” he said.

“I know from the early conversations I’ve had with a number of funders and stakeholders and potential partners, there is a willingness and desire to create something big, something significant at King and Queen.”

Marskell does not anticipate any problems raising the money to buy the bank building.

“There is no question at all we will own the building even if we have to get into a bit of a mortgage situation, but we don’t think we will have to do that,” he said.

“We have already begun cultivating early support with community leaders and major donors and corporate funders,” he said.

THEMUSEUM, which opened in September 2003 as the Waterloo Regional Children’s Museum, currently occupies about 38,000 square feet of space over four floors inside the former Goudies department store at 10 King St. W. The BMO building next door, the bank’s main office in the city, contains about 7,300 square feet of space.

While the BMO building is not that big, the property has potential for significant expansion by adding upper floors to the existing building, or tearing it down and replacing it with a new, larger one, said Frank Boutzis, president of THEMUSEUM’s board of directors.

“I am beyond excited,” said Boutzis. “We have all heard: ‘How do we keep people here? There is a brain drain out of the region.’ Coming up with a sustainable arts and culture landscape I think is really important.”

The vision, he said, is to build a beacon for arts and culture.

“We could go as big as the community wants us to go,” said Boutzis. “If the community got behind this and said: ‘We love this vision, we want this to be huge,’ then we’ve got the ability to do that.”

If there isn’t enough support to move ahead with a new building, THEMUSEUM has more modest plans, he said.

No matter what, THEMUSEUM will continue with the programs and events that are popular with its membership and the community, Marskell said. That includes pop culture, branded exhibitions, family events and science-technology-engineering-arts-math programing, he said..

Last year, Marskell stewarded a $1 million donation to THEMUSEUM’s endowment fund. The money came from the sale of a church and property his parents had built. When he announced that donation last September, Marskell said he hoped for a matching one from the community. BMO’s donation goes beyond that with the sole-purchaser agreement, he said.

Marskell has been CEO of THEMUSEUM since 2006. During that time THEMUSEUM’s exhibitions included Andy Warhol, Yoko Ono and Tom Thompson.

It also brought in branded shows, including “Discovering Chimpanzees: The Remarkable World of Jane Goodall”; “Titanic: The Artifact Exhibit;” Dazu rock carvings from China and “Our Body: The Universe Within.” To mark Canada 150, it staged “Quantum: The Exhibition,” which was developed by the University of Waterloo and then taken across the country.

Annual attendance is nearly 100,000, Marskell said, up from 30,000 when he took over as CEO.

By expanding, THEMUSEUM would be able handle much bigger shows that tour internationally, and earn enough revenue to make it sustainable, he said.

He cited the David Bowie show at the Brooklyn Museum and The Rolling Stones Exhibition currently in Nashville as the “types of things we hope to bring in the future.”

He stressed that THEMUSEUM cannot do this on its own.

“There is substantial work to be done,” he said. “And I do hope that as we start working with many volunteers and donors to make this a successful campaign, that this community will respond.”

Kitchener Mayor Berry Vrbanovic said the plans announced Monday are exciting. The City of Kitchener owns the building where THEMUSEUM is located, helps maintain it and provides an annual grant.

“I think if we are going to continue to grow and thrive as a community, we are going to need more of these kinds of things,” said Vrbanovic.

“Certainly THEMUSEUM has proven successful over the years, bringing about 100,000 people into downtown Kitchener annually,” he said.

More to come.

tpender@therecord.com, Twitter: @PenderRecord

tpender@therecord.com , Twitter: @PenderRecord