In person he’s soft-spoken, deferential, unassuming.
But behind the scenes, oh boy — not only is his enthusiasm contagious, once he gets an idea, he’s like a dog with a bone.
“I’m like Elaine on ‘Seinfeld’!” notes David Marskell, CEO of Kitchener’s innovative Themuseum since ditching a lucrative Ontario Place marketing post in 2006.
“She just says it, lives life hard, stays passionate.”
Call him Captain Kitchener.
With a mandate to transform the failing Waterloo Regional Children’s Museum in a downtown mired in neglect, the charismatic outlier blurred the lines between art, tech and culture — and tripled attendance — with crowd-pleasing exhibits on everything from the Titanic to “Avatar,” Andy Warhol to Yoko Ono.
Twelve years later, the 63-year-old upstart is still a fighter, a believer who — surrounded by nascent skyscrapers and an LRT track that will soon welcome its first train — sees nothing but potential for this city on the edge of tomorrow.
If Waterloo Region’s seven municipalities comprise an arts and culture Rat Pack, Marskell — proud, determined, visionary — is Chairman of the Board.
You have four pencils jammed into your office ceiling. What the hell kind of operation are you running here?
It happened on the first day. The president of Themuseum’s board handed me the keys and said “Good luck!” and I remember thinking, “What have I done? This is not my desk! This is not my job!”
So why did you move here?
I just sensed an opportunity. I believed this community deserved something better than what was in downtown Kitchener, which was a pretty burnt out area. I knew from my marketing experience I could bring in people from Hamilton and London.
With the children’s museum in a financial death spiral, your staff offered to drive to Costco to save money on stamps. You chafed. Was that the tipping point?
We couldn’t make long distance calls and we were going to spend money on gas to save a penny a stamp. At that point I realized we must act like a business and take risks. I have tried to instil in my young team, if they aren’t making mistakes, they are not trying.
Why is there a 2012 rejection letter from the administrative assistant to the Minister of Canadian Heritage tacked to your magnetized air duct?
Here we were — a little museum. We thought we were pulling above our weight. We thought it would be good if the minister would come to the opening of our “Treasures of China” exhibit. And then someone else writes us back.
You were insulted?
I don’t take “no” for an answer. I said “How about the week after next?”
Nothing happened. When the minister came a few months later for a different reason we had our picture together. I signed it and sent the assistant a copy.
You say you’re tenacious, but quit your first job at Mac’s Milk when they told you to move all the milk from one end of the store to the other. Where was the tenacity in that situation?
It wasn’t “take this job and shove it!” but more about “Hey thanks, my friend, but I am better than this job and won’t become a better person from it.”
You mentioned Elaine from “Seinfeld,” but your three “smart, wise-ass kids” view you as “Curb Your Enthusiasm’s” Larry David, asocially inept, acid-tongued neurotic obsessed with minutiae.
“Everyone knows you’re in the room! You want things done properly! The (lack of) hair and the crotchety-ness!” — that’s their feedback.
I have to ask — are you close with your kids?
(Laughs) Any verbal shots they take most definitely is affectionate grumbling.
I’ve just coined a new word: “Marskellian.” Please define.
Tenacious, passionate, a dreamer.
Have you ever used your own name as an adjective?
No, but others have and I see some themes. I don’t care what others think and strive for the ultimate goal. I evolve but I don’t change as a person for material things. I believe potential conflict must lead to dialogue. I stand by my values. I protect my colleagues and family. “Loyalty over ability” is an important motto of mine.
Why is THEMUSEUM spelled as one word in upper caps? It sounds like you’re shouting.
It’s about an attitude. We’re a maverick. Choosing ‘THEMUSEUM’ was meant to be tongue-in-cheek and ballsy, which is consistent with our brand.
Exactly how many spellings, and misspellings, of ‘THEMUSEUM’ have there been?
It’s registered and recognized by the province of Ontario as THEMUSEUM. Local CBC calls it TheMuseum. National CBC — THEMUSEUM. The Record — Themuseum. The very unfortunate part is it confuses the general public.
As a museum curator, do you not have an educational responsibility to stick with proper grammar?
You drove 13 Volkswagen Beetles between 1972 and the late 1980s. That seems like a lot.
It was my first car and they were cheapest. One burned in my parents’ driveway. I took the plates off one on the side of the 401 and left it. The cops took at least three off the road as they deemed them unsafe.
Is this another example of “tenacity”? Would you, in retrospect, have been better served by a different car?
My first test drive was a Ford Mustang. Not sure that is my image.
Why do you have a Venus flytrap on your desk?
Simply my guard dog. It keeps flies and elephants away … haven’t seen any in months.
You say you want to amalgamate Kitchener, Waterloo, Cambridge and the four townships into one giant megacity. This is a political H-bomb. Are you nuts?
It’s ludicrous that we have seven mayors and a chair of the region. We have to talk to every one of these people and get them onside. This community acts unified when it’s convenient, but Waterloo has no hospital, Kitchener no university. At some point in the future, it will be amalgamated. In my world there will be one pool of arts and culture money given out to help everybody. It’s just common sense.
You know you’re stepping on a hornet’s nest.
I know if you talk about amalgamation, you’re gonna get death threats.
Why is there a collection of old cellphones on your window pane?
I keep missing garbage day. Andthere may be photos on them I will want shown at my funeral.
BMO donated $1 million and gave you purchasing rights to its King Street building for what promises to be a major museum expansion. This follows a $1 million donation you were able to shepherd from the sale of your parents’ church. Things are looking up?
Ultimately, it’s a game changer, transformative for downtown Kitchener and a great stage for artists, STEAM and other arts and culture organizations.
What does it mean in practical terms?
With expanded exhibition space we can work with much larger branded exhibitions. “Harry Potter,” The Rolling Stones, “Downton Abbey.” I also hope to work with Conestoga College, Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Waterloo to create relevant exhibitions with their brain trust. I welcome ideas.
How does Steely Dan factor into this?
I was drawn to their smart, sophisticated sound and biting lyrics. As a Sunshine Boy — yes, I was — I was characterized as “David is hot for cool autumn weather and Steely Dan.”
Will we see a Steely Dan exhibit?
Not sure it would draw enough like-minded people — however, a cover band night is on my list.
It’s your museum. You can do what you like, right?
Almost. If it were truly mine and we were properly funded by all three levels of government — which we are not — I’d have to say ‘Just watch me!’ But that’s been taken.
What was Themuseum’s biggest exhibit over the past 11 years?
“Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition” (2011). For the final weekend we stayed open 36 hours in a row. At 4 a.m. we had 50 people.
Exhibits that didn’t click?
I’m surprised that “Tom Thomson: Man, Myth, and Masterworks” (2011) and “James Cameron’s Avatar: The Exhibition (2013) didn’t do better. They did OK but not what I expected.
People complain they’re afraid to walk in downtown Kitchener and there’s no parking. You seem undeterred.
Fighting for the underdog is paramount and it irks me when I hear people say they can’t park downtown — we are attached to 500 spots — and that they might get eaten if they come after dark. Kitchener is past the tipping point. With the condos, tech companies, the LRT and our expansion, the future will rock.
What’s your next challenge?
To get ready for the culture-craving urbanites about to move down here with the condos and LRT. At the end of it, you have to be relevant.
email@example.com, Twitter: @JoelRubinoff