Museum of Vancouver announces the new CEO

By Ray Culos

As a chronicler of the history of our community, I spoke with Mauro Vescera on Wednesday last about his five-year stint as Executive Director of the Italian Cultural Centre which comes to an end on January 26th. In part, we discussed his successes in advancing Italian history, language and culture to the greater community. And additionally, we reviewed the controversial loss of his personal raison d’étre; the plan to rebuild the physical plant of IL Centro and to significantly enhance its cultural program.
Marco Polo Mauro, in his usual articulate fashion, was truly engaging as he provided an enlightened chronology of his vision and performance. We start with his first day on the job in November 2012.
Mauro Vescera When I first started here, I was asked to try to bridge the original generation with the present and future generations. And I did quite a lot of research that included a little piece called “Being Ethnic” on third generation Italians just to get a sense of how to sustain ourselves as we go forward. In those conversations and meeting with groups there was a conversation that I began with the Greek, Hellenic, community as well as the Jewish Community Centre. And in both cases, it was about building up capacities so that they can sustain themselves in a financial way, long term, while continuing to promote their culture so as to ensure that the legacy is sustained over time. I often think of the Italian Cultural Centre and the connection to the building and the fact that the community came together 40 years ago and built it. And it’s a great story but it’s the IDEA of a cultural centre that really is the essence of it. The building is a physical manifestation of it but the fact is whether its this building or another building it is still the Italian Cultural Centre. But there is a lot of emotion tied to people’s involvement and commitment to the place. So, I understand that as well. It has to be done in a way that the members feel that the past has been respected and that they are building towards a common future. That concept is always there within the community’s vision – that this becomes the Italian Village; Villagio Italiano, a casa fuori a casa. They’ve made great strides. They built it. They added the social wing, the grand hall, the museum, and were associated with the addition of the Casa Serena and Villa Carital. They had ideas for a school, ideas for a theatre and cinema. They did build a museum but, some of those other things just didn’t get done for all sorts of reasons, financial and otherwise. As a result, the first few chapters of the community were accomplished and written. However, there was an opportunity to go forward … and some of these other communities have, through their own process got there. And I know the Greek community would like to do a little more on language, and a little more on cultural activity and so they are hoping to create some facilities within the context of building out condominiums to finance this plan.
Marco Polo I suggested that it had been no secret that the most top-of-mind goal or asperation during his tenure was to expand the physical plant and to expand the cultural program. So, I asked him just whose idea or vision was this – was it his?
Mauro Vescera When I began that first year, I learned in doing my research about the Centre that there existed this idea of a Villaggio Italiano. The idea included provision for a school, the theatre, a gymnasium plus some preliminary drawings suggesting that everything had been considered. And so, when I looked at that and looked at the organization – how it would sustain itself – it seemed that in this city – as mentioned earlier – there exists a model as a way to move forward which might be to redevelop. Of course, we didn’t have the resources but I was fortunate enough to get a $25,000 Grant from VanCity to do a feasibility study on what we could potentially build out here on this site. I did an IRSP request proposal and sent it to every Italian construction (development) company I could think of as well as a few non-Italian developers. The invitation to participate read in effect, ‘Here you can utilize the VanCity grant of $25,000 which to me was a way to build a little bridge for you guys to come in and do a feasibility study to see what was possible.’ In the end, none of the developers responded. However, we were fortunate to have Wayne De Angelis, the architect, take on the Project. And so, Wayne had already started to look at the materials that existed before these ideas of rebuilding had been considered – so, it certainly wasn’t my idea as it had always been at the core of the Centre’s thinking of the organization. He really got involved and came up with a bit of a concept that we could build out onto the parking lot to include the amenities that we had always talked about. We brought that concept back to the delegates for a presentation. And there were a lot of good questions from people around, you know, ‘Can we build given this terrain (on the property). Where do you get the money – how do you move forward?’ Some really good questions that showed me that it was truly a bigger initiative than simply throwing out the concept because clearly, we had a feasibility study that said there were a lot of possibilities – and I think that that is still clear – but in order to do it – you needed to find the resources. As a result, it sat fallow for a year or two. I would continue to bring it up with people in the community and the development community and in one of those conversations I spoke to Colin Bosa of Bosa Properties. Well, he thought about it and after a couple of meetings said, you know, let’s take a look at it. They took a look at it and actually I believe became inspired by the possibility of a Legacy Project that both our families could become involved in that would not only benefit the Centre but ensure the sustainability of the organization, the presence in the community, and so the Board agreed – I had presented it to the Board – to pursue a conversation with them to let them delve into and assess what potentially could happen here. In other words, to build upon the original feasibility study and to add more resources and to do a little more research.
They held, I think, ten Information Sessions, Open Houses, a bunch of presentations and eventually it went to the membership for a vote. A positive vote would take the concept they had came up with, which we included on our Website, and virtually rebuild the whole Centre. They really, with their expertise, looked at building around it and felt comfortable that this was the best option. And the next step required that the membership say to the Board, take it to the City to see what they think of the concept. You know, in Vancouver, you can come up with a design but the City might not like the colour. Perhaps it’s too high; it’s a big negotiation.
In the end, the vote was really about going forward to the City to see what potentially they might allow here at the Centre with the understanding that for them it would be the amenities for not only the Italian community but the community at large; a theatre, a cinema, the museum, day care, seniors’ housing – all those elements – would increase the City’s openness with respect to doing the project. They also asked for a lot of consultation with the adjoining neighbourhood which was a very big process. But you start the conversation in a certain way with the City and that was what this vote was all about. It wasn’t going to be about this particular project, it was how you started the negotiations. Now, it’s a democracy and the membership – you know – for a lot of good reasons did not pass it. It was seven votes short.
Marco Polo I asked Mauro if he thought the project was dead.
Mauro Vescera The project is still there for the Board to bring forward should they choose to do so. Bosa has spent well over $300,000, perhaps more, on all their work. And they are quite comfortable with all of that. They sort of feel that it’s up to the Board and membership to say, okay go forward and see what we can do. The first time it didn’t happen but it’s sitting there available to the community. It belongs to the Cultural Centre and to the
Italian Community and not to any individual here. The Board needs to help move it forward and the membership hopefully will have another chance to vote on it. Sometime, as my mom says, you just have to let the food cook. In this case, it’s
cooking and hopefully, the community will look at it again. But it’s up to the members ultimately and that’s fair.
Marco Polo Now that you’re sitting here with one foot out of the door, so to speak, was having to scuttle plans for redevelopment during your watch a major disappointment to you?
Mauro Vescera You know, I was disappointed. Whenever things like this happen, I take these things in stride. Yes, it was disappointing but it also was understandable. Perhaps there was need for more communications. I think one of the most frustrating things for me, wasn’t so much the vote, because it’s still a democracy, it was all the attempts we made to engage the membership in conversation. But participation was low, and it felt like the interest was low and that was a disappointment. Sure, I would have loved to have seen it moving forward but I still think it should move forward. I’ll continue to be a member and I will vote for it, if it comes up again. At the time it was … you always look back and say we could have done this, we could have done that and
we could have done this to explain and that’s fair. I think that is going on right now, how do we address some of the issues that are complicated; ownership,
you build out and you have apartments there; a different ownership model. And it’s complicated and complex. There were comments about the design not being Italian enough. Well, that something that, I think, would have been addressed but when you look at it sure, everybody has a different opinion. And then transition strategy – so if they rebuild the Centre, the whole thing, what happens to the organizations in the interim. There was a strategy for that as well, conversations around the financial model. Well, the crux of it is that it was a very positive proposal but it’s not written in stone – meaning these things go back and forth. So, the answer to your question is I was disappointed but you know you try to learn from your mistakes and go on, next time say we can address this.
Marco Polo Regarding the impasse, I asked Mauro if that decided him to seek employment elsewhere?
Mauro Vescera No, no, I think I – so I’ll tell you the story. In the fall – and when you get to be my age – people will call up and say that there’s this job, there’s that job. That has happened to me a couple times a year. This fall, I remember it vividly because in one week, I got three different calls. Two of them were not interesting to me but this opportunity at the Museum of Vancouver as the CEO was interesting to me. I had worked with them in the past during my time at the Vancouver Foundation where I ran the arts and cultural program for the Province. So, I knew about the organization, I was interested in it and it took a few conversations before I sort of threw my hat in the ring.
Much to my surprise and delight, they made me a very generous offer. I have, you know, mixed feelings because, my staff and all these possibilities at the Centre. I also have three kids at university and it struck me that while we have moved a long way at the Cultural Centre that this opportunity was one of those things that comes by rarely and that the timing was Now. Sure, if it were to have come three years from now, that would have been nice but we all come to these points in our lives where something of interest needs to be considered. When they came back with their offer, it felt like the right thing to do. It took me a week to finally make the decision but I did.
Marco Polo In terms of the foot print Mauro leaves behind, I asked him exactly what were the major highlight’s associated with his leadership role as executive director of the ICCS?
Mauro Vescera I’m pleased with the rebranding the logo, getting a sign for the Centre, the Farmers’ Market, the community garden, the bake oven, really proud of the Film Festival, now in its 5th year, the biggest ever this year. I am very proud of our cultural program, I think we have a strong partnership in collaboration with opera, jazz and theatre. We have a strong relationship with Little Italy on the Drive now, really upped our game on the cultural side. I think our school has turned around; red ink to black ink. Our director spoke today that enrollment is the highest it has been. And all of this proves interest in the Italian culture.
Our audience has trebled in three years and our budget has grown by almost 30%. So, people are indeed interested in Italian culture in the context of this country and its multi-cultural policy. We now have a culinary program. It’s generating revenue for the Centre showing, I hope, the community that using our heritage, language and culture as a way to market and promote the organization which is essentially our mandate has resulted in more bookings, more events, more activities for the Centre.
We do 750 events in a year. We are turning people away. We don’t have enough space. If we had more space I think we could do more programming.
And people are interested in it. So, I feel like there has been a lot of successes. I think the organization is a great spot. And when I think back on the sorts of things we did – I can think of Andrea Pirlo, Lidia Bastianich, Ray ‘Boom Boom’ Mancini and Sergio Matterella, President of Italy. I feel like we really increased our profile in our community, something we should be proud of.
Thank you for your candid remarks Mauro and best wishes for every success in your new adventure with the Museum of Vancouver.

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