Constructing a new public gallery covers considerable funding and solid credibility of the people involved in the development. Joining Douglas Nelson in this episode is the Curator and Director of The Polygon Gallery, Reid Shier. Shier explains what The Polygon Gallery is all about and the purpose of the facility. He also talks about its history and the journey in planning the new gallery in North Vancouver. In this conversation, understand the value of credibility, reputation, and establishing relationships in getting the support you need to further your organization’s goals.
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The Polygon Gallery With Reid Shier
Our guest on the show today is Reid Shier. He’s the director of The Polygon Gallery in North Vancouver, and we’re thrilled to have him on the show. Welcome.
Thanks, Doug. I really appreciate the chance to have a conversation.
As we’re virtually neighbors here in North Vancouver, I think it’s been too long for us to wait to have this conversation. I’m glad we’re having it now. For those who aren’t familiar, tell us what The Polygon Gallery is and why people should be paying attention.
We’re certainly a North Van institution that a lot of people might not have otherwise heard about. We began as Presentation House Gallery in the late 1970s, established a mandate to show photography in the early 1980s, and then developed quite a substantial reputation, albeit a small but devoted one over the ensuing decades. During that time, we worked very hard to fundraise for a facility that would fit the gallery and the programming that we had become known for. That came to fruition in 2017 when we opened the doors of the new facility at the foot of Lonsdale Avenue. We changed our name to The Polygon Gallery. We are, in short strokes, a not-for-profit public art gallery focusing on photography and contemporary art.
It is a beautiful building that does befit the reputation and beautiful art that’s in it. I’m interested in understanding that process. You said you started some fundraising and moved to a new building but I know it was a much heavier lift than that. Take us back to realizing you needed to raise that money for the new building and how you got started in conceptualizing the building that you’re in now.The pandemic has definitely exposed its great schisms of inequality. Click To Tweet
The work towards the new building began well before I got hired for the position. I was hired in 2006 but for a number of years proceeding my tenure, the gallery had worked to establish a vision for a new facility and the fundraising muscle that could realize that as well as a relationship with North Van City Council either to rebuild the Presentation House or find a new site. We can go into great detail about all of that work. For the sake of our conversation, I was hired in 2006, as I said, after the initial efforts had somewhat stalled, a lot of work had focused on a building on Lonsdale at 3rd Avenue.
I was hired with the specific mandate to reignite that process. There was a lot of work at the beginning between 2006 and 2009 to develop capacity with the institution. A lot of that had to do with building a board of directors that could help with the fundraising as well as a relationship with the North Van City Council that was supportive of the vision that we had for it. It was an ambitious vision for the building and for a small organization at that time. I got there with an annual budget of between $600,000 and $800,000 a year to develop a multi-million dollar new facility. It was a stretch. Capacity was a crucial for a start and there was a lot of work to build the capacity of the organization, staff that could help realize to build the credibility with the board and build that community of relationships that were necessary for a capital campaign.
It’s interesting that you start with capacity. I am curious how much of your conversations both in recruiting your board of directors and working with the city council? How much of that was telling them about the reputation of Presentation of House Gallery outside of the Lower Mainland. It’s seen as a culturally important place in Canada but often, we don’t recognize that when it’s in our backyard.
It’s a double-edged sword because you can spend a lot of time talking about how much is written up about in international art magazines and newspapers across Canada. That has meaning for some people but for other people who want to see an organization that has a stake in the ground for their community, they’re wondering if that’s great. The question is, what can you do for us here? We were never going to be the Vancouver Art Gallery. We’re never going to be the central major public art gallery. What we were doing is building a very specific organization with a very specific mandate in a small community.
North Van is fundamentally still a city of a little over 50,000 people. We had to balance our big international reputation with a conversation about what we were going to do here in North Van, for the city and our community. It was a lot of work to put together that message. We were lucky to have a very supportive council and staff at city hall who saw how much we could fit into their vision for a revitalized Lower Lonsdale and what we could bring to that conversation or equation.
When you embarked on this capacity building, were you aware of how intense the message discipline was going to need to be? I imagine finding the balance between we’re credible and worth your time, look at how the world views us and look at what we can do for you is challenging to maintain over a period of time.
It was. You have to prove that. You can’t come to council and say, “Give us the baton, let us go and let us fundraise. We can do it.” They needed some credibility behind that. As we developed the board and the capacity of the board, one of the first things we did was hire some outside consultants to go into our community and to produce a feasibility study testing what was our fundraising capacity. What would people give us? That’s a blind sample that we don’t necessarily see the end results of other than a cumulative total.
What we discovered was indeed our community was small but it did have great capacity and it did have a lot of belief in us. Even though we weren’t going to be an organization that could do a broad-based campaign with hundreds or thousands of donations from all sorts of different people and constituencies, what we did have a core of very strong support among some people that could help out. We had a very positive feasibility study. That was one of the first documents that we brought to the council as a way of offering some proof that what we said we were able to do, we could do.
Is there anything in that feasibility study that surprised you as the director of the Gallery?
When you’re working in an organization for many years at a certain capacity, you become somewhat used to that. What surprised me was the level of support we saw. It was the enthusiasm behind the vision of what we were trying to do. I was happily surprised. I was encouraged by the things we were hearing from people about what they wanted. People felt what we could accomplish wasn’t ambitious but it was also discreet enough that it could be accomplished. What we saw was a lot of enthusiasm for a project to was realizable.
You mentioned building your board and building the capacity of your board. If you look at your board of directors now, from the outside, it looks like a very strong board. How has your relationship with your board changed as you’ve gone through this capital project and now you’re into the new building? We’ll deal with COVID later but how were the conversations around your board table different than they were when you first started?
Any project like a capital project is very galvanizing. Building a board is not an overnight task for anybody who has been on a board or has been involved in many organizations as you know. These things take time to change cultures. That isn’t to say that the culture when I got there wasn’t a great one. It was extremely positive. There’s a lot of ingredients that we needed to build in order to bring the real specific talents to the table that would help us accomplish the goal. People involved in the development industry and people that had experience building buildings.
People with capacity, not to help us fundraise, but to help us plan and project manage. All of those specific talents like budgeting and building the rigor of the talents that go into building a building were very specific criteria that we were looking for when we were building the board. We were lucky to have some very good talent on the board over the period that we were developing the vision of the building, planning and designing it as we got into the actual project of construction. The conversations at the board table were very enthusiastic as we started to gain momentum. Those are fun meetings to be at when we assess to the table every time we meet.
That was very specific board chemistry. After we finished and we accomplished it, there were congratulations all around and everybody was feeling fantastic, then you go into post-partum depression a little bit. We then started building a new vision for the board and a new board. One that is much more focused on sustainability, on building capacity for the long-term and in helping you realize what the vision is for the new building and for the programming. How are you going to keep this thing up and running? How are you going to keep the lights on? Some of those conversations are not as galvanizing and they do require different board chemistry. It’s been illustrative and I’m very lucky for a great board as I transitioned into that new role.
We see that all the time with the boards that go through major capital campaigns or big organizational transformations. There is that, as you said, post-partum depression. It’s not the first board meeting in the new building that you need to remember and be worried about, it’s the second one. The first one, everybody’s thrilled to be there. The second is like, “What do we do now?” It sounds like you’ve managed to navigate that. As a leader, how have you managed that transition for yourself because the leader of the campaign and the board’s new vision for new places is one story, the help us sustain it now is a very different story? How have you managed that transition as a director?
There’s a certain sense of pride and accomplishment. I owe a great debt to the team that we’ve assembled here. A lot of those people were brought on board to help realize the project of the new building. As we have transitioned into this new role, there’s been a lot of amazing surprises about the new building that has both good and bad that has kept us awake at night. It was a feeling like we were settling in. We were like, “That’s what it’s going to take to run this new building. That’s how we can do that.” The sense of we were getting our feet underneath us at the beginning of 2020 and then the rug gets pulled out. You have to throw everything out and start all over again. I have to say I’m feeling right now even as we speak that I’ve recuperated a little bit and we can start looking forward again. We’re all feeling that but there’s some optimism measured against what will likely be used in very hard months ahead.
It’s been fascinating to see how different organizations and institutions have managed this forced pivot, I heard someone describe it as. I thought that sounded more benign than I think how most organizations experienced. Walk us through quickly how the gallery did pivot once the rug was pulled out and tell us where you are now.
Backing up a little bit about the economy of running this new building, one of the very big surprises was the enormous success of our event rental program. I underestimated the desirability of the location we’re at, coupled with the way we had designed the building to accommodate event rentals. We became a very popular destination which helped our bottom line enormously much more than we had ever anticipated. As we began to balance this new budget with the much bigger demands of the infrastructure of running this beautiful new building, we were very fortunate to have that backstop us, that rental program.
When COVID hit, that was the first thing that disappeared overnight. $750,000 evaporates in a blink of an eye. You’re faced immediately with what that prospect looks like and some very hard planning choices. We made a commitment that the biggest priority was the safety and welfare of our guests and our staff. Come what may, I was going to do everything I could to keep our staff on board and not to hopefully, have to lay anybody off. So far, that’s come to fruition. We’ve made it through 2020 without having to take any staff cuts. I take it as a fantastic accomplishment in a lot of that. I don’t take personal credit for it but I take it as credit for an amazing team as well as the fortunate help of the federal government through the emergency wage subsidy, which was huge for many cultural organizations as well as it has been for many businesses.
How long were you closed before? What was the period of time when you had no one going through the Gallery?
That was March 13th, 2020, I believe was the day that we effectively closed shop. We were allowed to open in June 2020. It was three months that we were closed completely. Since June, unlike many organizations across Canada that had to open and close, British Columbia has been fortunate in that regard through it. Partly it’s leadership and partly, it’s luck that it’s allowed us to stay open. We’re certainly not seeing anywhere near the attendance level that we did before that but we’ve managed to stay open to the public. Our gift shop has been open and we’ve developed our exhibition program and online programming in a robust way that’s kept the pulse going here. That’s been lucky.
One of the things we’ve seen looking across the country is some boards, when the pandemic hit, got right into the gears of the organizations and wanting to know how much was being spent on erasers, staples and stamps. Some boards drop right down to ground level and other boards drifted off into the stratosphere and forgot that the organization was still there. Both of those have pretty significant implications for leadership. How did you manage to keep your board connected to the organization as you’re going through both the closure itself where there’s nothing happening and then this reopening that you’ve had in the subsequent months?Credibility is best based on honesty. Click To Tweet
A lot of our time is focused on our finance committee. There were some pretty drastic scenario planning at the very beginning. There were a number of plans on the table for various contingencies. Necessarily, the board asked for some very pessimistic planning with the idea that hopefully none of that will come to fruition but at least having those plans in our back pocket allowed us to know that we were going to survive. Those scenarios were not pretty but we weren’t in a position of having to react. We’re in a position where we could have a little bit of forward-thinking. As hard as some of those conversations were, I’m grateful that we spent that time doing that.
As we opened up and started to see revenues return, they’re certainly nowhere near what we saw beforehand, it has been more of an upside. The resulting conversations with the board as a result have been more positive. I wouldn’t say we took a slash-and-burn outlook at the very beginning but there were some very aggressive conversations about what the future was going to hold. Again, we’ve been lucky to see a number of revenue streams return. We did a fundraising campaign that was very well received and was backed up by the board. The board stepped up for that and matched donations. That gives a lot of encouragement to staff. The board had its back and was supported by our community.
There was emergency funding through our government partners that were very helpful. My staff took pay cuts, which were led by senior management. We asked the rest of our staff to follow suit. Me and core leadership team tried to lead by example. The sense that at least we were in this together was beneficial for morale. I can’t understate how difficult this 2021 has been but I believe that I can speak from a team to say that we felt like we were in this together. That might be an overused epithet but it’s something that I felt was galvanizing.
That we’re in this together feeling as we look ahead and we’re speaking in early 2021. There are some glimmers of optimism on the horizon for sure. The in-it-together feeling through this very difficult 2020 period and probably the first few months of 2021, how do you think that’s going to impact the organization and the way your team works as we move beyond the pandemic?
What the pandemic has definitely exposed us is great schisms of inequality and that has caused a lot of necessary soul searching in many different constituencies and certainly within the cultural community that has been profound. How we will address those inequalities and inequities? Ongoing is a central and fundamental question to all cultural organizations. As part of a social fabric, it’s a necessary question but how we address that, how we represent communities, how we represent disenfranchised communities, how we, as an organization, become more of a community resource and more of a piece for change are questions that are central to how we will continue and how we will grow. Hopefully, those are positive outcomes. Those are things that the pandemic has put at our feet as questions that need to be addressed.
You had already made a number of steps and building relationships with indigenous communities and indigenous art prior to the pandemic. I heard one person I was speaking to said, “It’s not the outcomes that will be different going forward, it’s that we’re trying to move in a different direction entirely and how our success will be not falling back on the patterns that we had before the pandemic.” How does that recognition of needing to be a different guide as to how you’re going to get Gallery ready to go coming out of the pandemic?
There’s a lot of work going on internally. A lot of that is necessary for building the ecology that I think the organization could be proud of a lot of the work it’s done as far as representing communities, representing different artists that come from different communities. Again, there’s work to be done within the organization that will hopefully help lead us as we strive to do better. How does the Gallery respond to its situation in North Vancouver? How does it respond to its local communities? How it responds very fundamentally to the Squamish community whose unceded territory we sit on is certainly central to my thinking and to I would hope some of the opportunities that we have ahead of us.
What are you personally looking forward to as we move into 2021?
I’m looking forward to getting back together with people. Part of the appeal of the organization and the institution is this is a great place to be together. It’s a great building. We’re seeing a lot of fatigue online right now. I’m sure you’re hearing that. There have been fantastic opportunities for connecting with people all over the world which this new virtual environment has provided to us, which we don’t want to ever let go of. We’ve done a lot of digital content but it’s the immediacy of being able to connect with somebody such as yourself right now, but also people all over the world has been fantastic.
At the same time, how do we see being back in a room together? We’re social creatures and the experience of looking at an artwork in the context of physical interaction with it is something that we’ve learned as critical. I’m looking forward to the opportunity to be in a room with other people and to have a conversation with other people that’s not virtual. That’s been a great replacement for it but we’re seeing a validation in what it was we set out to do and the hunger to be back together.
What advice would you give to other leaders as they’re looking at 2021 through that lens of people looking forward to the personal connection?
We were in conversation with Ballet BC and the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra about a collaboration. One of the opportunities that these conversations have opened up for us is the possibility for dialogue for much richer ideas between organizations for collaboration across disciplines. I’m excited about that. The directors of Performing Arts Organizations have been faced with incredible challenges right now. As much as it’s a hard year for me, it has been catastrophic for leaders of organizations that rely on people sitting in theater seats. I can’t even begin to offer what advice that they might want to offer the rest of us other than perseverance. Hopefully, we’re going to be able to get together again soon and this is going to be behind us but it will be a new landscape.
As we come to the end of our conversation here, I want to underline a couple of themes that came through and what you shared with us. You talked a lot about the importance of building capacity for the organization, relationships and the board. The word credibility came up at least four times as you were describing what it took to move from your old site to the beautiful new facility you’re in now and making it sustainable since you moved in 2017. How do you think that element of credibility will play out in this renewal of the organization that’s coming when everything opens up?
Proof is always in the pudding but credibility is best based on honesty. You establish relationships based on integrity and honesty, fulfilling promises, being true to your word and being true to your commitments. I like to believe that we’ve established a track record for doing that and that’s why the organization has the support it does right now. Moving forward, what commitments we make to our communities to be a resource, the greatest opportunity for any organization is how it helps enrich and build culture. I take that to be a very wide-ranging word. Culture in place, at any given time, is a sense of community and common purpose. Sometimes, that’s in short supply and we’ve seen some damaging times based on a lot of mistrust. I’m hopeful that we can continue to build things based on a level of trust in one another in the sense that we’ve got something very valuable to keep hold of here.
That was both an answer of humility and diplomacy as you’re referencing that. What you described is a great example for people who are involved in institution building whether they’re acting as fundraisers, leading the organization or on boards. It’s the capacity, credibility and integrity that can make all the difference not just in the short-term but over the long-term.
It’s backed by an institution. It’s the belief that you’re doing and you want to share with other people. That’s something that is dear to my heart. We’re very lucky to have this building and this opportunity to share it with other people.
We’ve accomplished a lot so far and we’ll be looking forward to seeing what comes as 2021 rolls out. Thank you very much for being on the show, Reid.
I appreciate the chance, Doug.
About Reid Shier
Reid Shier is the Director of The Polygon Gallery, formally Presentation House Gallery, North Vancouver. Since joining the Gallery, Shier has spearheaded its growth as a major cultural institution, and led the planning, design and development of its new $17.5M waterfront home.
Shier has curated over 80 exhibitions, and was recently selected as the Curator for Stan Douglas’ exhibition representing Canada at the 2022 Venice Biennale.