Anne Eschapasse is President and Chief Executive Officer of Montréal’s McCord Stewart Museum. She has more than 20 years of international experience leading museums and cross-disciplinary teams in developing and delivering high-profile initiatives and programs at renowned museums, chiefly in France and Canada. She has an impressive track record, having served as Deputy Director of Agence France Muséums based at the Louvre Abu Dhabi, as Deputy Director of the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal and the National Gallery of Canada, and as Director of Productions and International Relations at the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris.
Anne is a member of the MMIAM International Advisory Committee. She and Brittany spoke just before the holidays commenced.
Are you an artist? How did you become interested in the arts?
I am not an artist nor do I come from a family of artists. My first vivid memory of going to a museum was as a child in Paris—I spent most of my childhood there—I remember being four or five and my parents taking me to the city’s Musée d’Art Moderne. I remember feeling very comfortable there. It was both a calm and stimulating environment where I could see beautiful things. I was particularly attracted to a large painting by [Raoul] Dufy called La Fée Électricité.
When my father was transferred to London, where we lived for three years, my school happened to be just across from the Victoria and Albert Museum. I spent my lunch breaks going in and browsing the galleries, looking at fashion, photography, and decorative arts, and feeling compelled by the sense of history, and by a sense of connection. I understood that objects convey stories.
So, not an artist, but museums have been a part of my life from an early age.
How did you decide to enter arts management?
After I graduated from high school, I studied law at Sorbonne University in Paris for four years. I didn’t have any connections in the art world or know about different types of jobs. I was still very drawn to museums, but the field itself was nebulous. After graduating, I had the opportunity to move to New York and it was at that time that I decided to explore working in the cultural field.
I interned at the Brooklyn Museum in the European Paintings Department. After a few months, I knew that this was where I wanted to be. So, I went back to school, this time enrolling in the graduate museum studies program at New York University. During that year, I was required to complete another internship. This time, I interned at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, which houses a fabulous collection of material culture and design. There, I heard about a new graduate program at the Bard Graduate Center for Decorative Arts. It was 1993 and it had just been founded in New York and I enrolled. I completed a Master’s degree in Material Culture, Design, and Decorative Arts. I was more curious about the design and making of objects, the stories they convey in terms of taste and social evolution, and how they reflect the changing values of a society than traditional art history. After my studies, I began my career at Christie’s in New York as a decorative arts specialist.
You’ve engaged in so many shifts, from growing up in France and the UK to beginning your career in New York, studying law, then working in museums and auction houses. How do you think this has shaped you into the professional you are today?
I’m a life-long learner. I like to meet new people and experiment, I’m very nimble and I’m not risk averse. These are very valuable skills, especially when I’ve worked in environments where we had to manage change on a large scale.
Of course, it’s always a challenge to move to a new country, take a new job, or get to know a new team and environment. In general, I think it’s critical to be aligned with the vision of the organization you work for. This is a key piece that I’ve come to understand as my career has progressed. If there is no alignment, you will not be able to give your best self and eventually, it will become clear that you don’t belong. So, ask questions to understand the organizational culture! There is another thing I’ve kept in mind throughout my career. I think it was Einstein who said strive not to be a success but to be of value. You do have a value—you bring your experience, your ideas, your past, your personality to a workplace—but it’s not to be a success but to be in service to a community or a cause.
Does that first memory of experiencing the museum influence your approach to leading the McCord Stewart Museum?
I’ve always been a passionate advocate for the social roles of museums, which are places where people can recharge, connect, and engage with the past or contemporary issues. So, to develop relevant programs and to create an environment where people, from all walks of life, feel welcomed whether for 10 minutes, two hours, or the whole day is an important part of my work. I’m concerned about hospitality, belonging, and inspiration.
There are very few places where people can go and feel encouraged to sit and linger for an indefinite time. Are there ways that you achieve this?
My job is to make sure that I’ve got the right people and that there is a sound framework where everyone has a sense of purpose and is able to thrive. Organizational values are key drivers. It’s one of the great strengths of the McCord Stewart that the staff understands and stands behind the museum’s values and priorities. Our current strategic plan, which will take us through 2027, really embodies those values—openness, reconciliation with First Nations peoples, engagement with the community, diversity—we strive to be a community resource, with a national and international outlook.
In terms of our visitors, there are fundamental things, such as a welcoming staff, lighting, signage, clean facilities, accessible labels, and places to rest that must be thought about critically. Our collection is a national treasure! It is our responsibility to share it in the best possible conditions.
Can you share something coming in the next year that you’re excited about at the McCord Stewart Museum?
We’ve commissioned a new outdoor installation. Since 2013, we have programmed the street that’s adjacent to the museum with picnic tables, urban installations, and activities. It’s a very lively place, especially in the summer and fall. The new installation will be unveiled this summer.
Additionally, we’re redoing our educational spaces. We’ve contracted an architectural firm from Montréal and are looking forward to many exciting improvements. We’re also doing significant work in the field of decolonization and reconciliation with the First Nations. This is something I’m very keen to pursue and amplify. We also have a very strong commitment to addressing climate change. This has been a decade-long commitment and we’ve learned quite a bit; information that we share with the museum community.
In terms of programming, we have been working for several years on a ground-breaking exhibition of costume balls, organized in Montréal, Québec City, and Ottawa between 1870 and 1927. We care for one of the largest collections of costumes, textiles, and fashion in the country, and our conservation lab holds unmatched expertise in the field. This one-of-a-kind project will be inaugurated in November.
What does it mean for a museum to tackle climate change? Is it education for guests, the way you construct new buildings…something else?
It starts with the staff since it’s a cross-institutional commitment that is embedded in our strategic plan. The United Nations’ sustainable goals guide our operations and practices. All staff members are constantly being trained on what constitutes climate change, on sustainable practices, and on how addressing it is a part of everyone’s role. So, it looks different for different people. It can be in our choice of suppliers, in the way we construct and deconstruct exhibitions, in the way we choose and utilize materials, etcetera. It’s important to have high ambitions but also to deliver tangible results; so we’re making incremental changes whenever we can. But there is no turning back!
Soon, we will embark on an expansion project. I believe our aim ultimately will be to have a carbon net zero building.
You mentioned that you’re thinking a lot about equity, broadly. How is this being received within the community?
The McCord Stewart is recognized as a leader in the field of reconciliation which has been a longstanding commitment. We hold a collection of over 16,000 Indigenous artifacts and since the 1990s, we’ve been working with representatives of First Nations peoples across Canada to better understand the collection and make it more accessible–both on-site and online–and better known. We’ve just restituted several objects last month. Of course, with more resources—both personnel and financials—we could do more, especially in terms of training a new generation of Indigenous cultural leaders, conservators, and curators, but we are a trusted, well-respected organization.
We also always partner with community organizations or representatives when working on exhibitions or educational or cultural programs. Last year, we worked closely with the Montréal-based Chinese community thanks to a project led by artist-in-residence Karen Tam as well as with residents of the Hochelaga district thanks to another artist, filmmaker Joannie Lafrenière. Both projects were very well received by the respective communities, and we hope to continue building upon these new relationships. We are about to launch an exciting initiative that will bring the voices of Afro-descendant women to the fore.
The restitution of objects has been a major topic of conversation worldwide. Were there any tough conversations you had to have before doing so?
Actually, no. Our Board of Trustees and our partner McGill University were convinced that it was the right thing to do. I should mention the Chair for our Board of Trustees is Innu, one of the eleven Indigenous nations of Quebec, so this helps. We are also a private museum; we can decide things with less red tape.
*Anne Eschapasse’s headshot credit: Benedicte Brocard.