An Interview with Larry Ostola, Toronto’s Director of Museums and Heritage Services
As Canada prepares to celebrate its Sesquicentennial in 2017, public servants from coast to coast are planning a variety of special events and commemorations, bringing out their best artifacts and using new technologies to help citizens discover and gain a greater appreciation for the rich history and heritage this country offers. CGE Editor Patrice Dutil tracked down Larry Ostola, the Director of Museums and Heritage Services and Acting Director of Arts and Culture for the City of Toronto to talk about Toronto’s special plans next year. Prior to moving to Toronto, Ostola was a long-time federal public servant and served as Vice-President of Heritage Conservation and Commemoration with Parks Canada with a variety of responsibilities related to National Historic Sites, built heritage and World Heritage. He holds a Ph.D. in Canadian History from Laval University.
Q1. You’re old enough to remember Canada’s last big birthday bash. Any special memories about 1967?
All right, I’ll own up to it…yes, I am old enough to have been there, and in fact I think I still have my red Expo 67 Passport kicking around somewhere with stamps from many of the different pavilions. As a native of the south shore of Montreal I was fortunate to have been able to get to Expo 67 quite a bit and have vivid memories of the pavilions like the striking Canadian building and others like the U.S. and French pavilions. I also remember being amazed by the monorail and the excitement that was in the air. And who can forget the song?
Q2. So you went from being a senior federal public servant to being a senior executive in Canada’s largest city. What was the transition like?
It was, and continues to be a really interesting transition. Unlike the federal government, there is no “governing party” in the municipal realm but 44 ward councillors who have independent views on policy and issues. At any given moment we are in direct contact with many of them and they are in continual contact with their constituents.
Related to this, there is also real immediacy to things at the municipal level. A great deal of our activity is operational in nature and related to the direct provision of programs and services to citizens. Those citizens can and do make their views known, often on a first name basis! In my time at the City, I have also gained a real appreciation for the challenges faced by municipalities and the enormous range and complexity of the programs and services that the City provides. From water to housing to public transportation, infrastructure and cultural services it is incredibly varied. If I recall my stats correctly, the City of Toronto is the 6th largest government in Canada, something that I think is sometimes overlooked.
Q3. What are your primary responsibilities at the City?
Museums and Heritage Services (MHS) is part of the Economic Development and Culture Division. The division is a reflection of a simple yet powerful idea. A vibrant and dynamic cultural scene and great livability requires a strong and thriving economy and to attract investment and entrepreneurs you need a great quality of life, which culture directly contributes to.
MHS supports the second part of that equation. We are mandated to conserve and present Toronto’s history for the benefit of residents and visitors. We are responsible for ten historical museums directly administered by the City as well as a portfolio of a hundred mostly heritage buildings across the City that are used for a variety of cultural and other purposes. These range from places like the 43-acre Fort York National Historic Site and the mid-nineteenth century Montgomery’s Inn to Casa Loma and the Berkeley St. Theatre. In addition we operate storage facilities that house the City collections of historic objects (including things like the Eaton family collection), archaeological objects and 2,500 works of moveable fine art.
Q4. Tell me about what the City of Toronto is doing for Canada 150 in 2017.
We are looking forward to a great year-long celebration in the City to mark Canada’s Sesquicentennial! I think the tag line that we have developed — “TO Canada with Love: Honouring 150 Years” — says it all.
We will be kicking things off with a massive public party at Nathan Phillip’s Square on New Year’s Eve and following that up with a number of major events and smaller events throughout the year. These include the commemoration of the 100th Anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, a celebration of National Aboriginal Day on June 21 followed by four days showcasing aboriginal history, arts and culture. There will be major activations of performing artists at four locations in the City on July 1st including a four-day celebration at Nathan Phillips Square from June 30th to July 3rd. The Doors Open event will focus on 150 years of Canadian architecture and our ever-popular all-night long public art event “Nuit Blanche” will focus on the theme of “Many possible futures”.
We are also planning a number of great exhibits during the year including one entitled “The Maple Leaf Forever: Toronto’s take on a national symbol”. One other captivating year-long event is called MomenTO and it will be commemorating and celebrating persons, places and events that marked the history of both Toronto and Canada under broad themes such as “Canadian innovation in Toronto” and “Canadian music in Toronto.” Through this event we hope to engage many different partners, groups and institutions across the City. We hope that you can join us! It’s all listed on www.toronto.ca.
Q5. Do you think there are special challenges to getting the word out on Canada in such a busy, multicultural community of millions?
One of the things that struck me when I arrived here was just how busy and diverse Toronto is. Like many others, I passed through the City over the years on business or to take in an event of some type. But it was only when I actually moved here that I really begin to appreciate just how much is going on regardless of the time of the year. From festivals to exhibitions to special events of various types there is always something happening and residents and visitors have many different choices. So trying to get your message out and make your voice heard in the midst of all of that can be a challenge. For example, in 2015 we had the privilege of hosting the fantastic exhibit Magna Carta: Law, Liberty and Legacy at Fort York as part of a cross-Canada tour. In order to be successful and make the public aware of it we had to make use of every communications channel at our disposal over a significant period of time. In a city like Toronto, it’s a real challenge.
Q6. How do you measure your success as an executive?
I think that success can be viewed in a number of different ways. First, I want to ensure that I have created or helped create the conditions that support the success of our team members. So, for example, is there a clear vision that has been articulated? Have clear objectives and expectations been set and have they been effectively communicated, and are the necessary tools and resources to achieve those objectives in place?
Success is also related to ensuring that our efforts and our results are aligned with those of the Economic Development and Culture Division and with the broader strategic objectives that have been set for the City of Toronto. So, in the case of MHS are we effectively contributing to the cultural dynamism that I mentioned above which in turn supports the goal of city building? I want answers to these questions all the time.
Finally, as part of the senior executive leadership team within the Division and within the City, I have to see success as a measure of how me and my team are contributing to the advancement of the City’s general objectives.
Q7. Picture yourself on December 31, 2017, What do you wish for that date?
I will want to know that it will have been a very busy but very gratifying and significant year here in Toronto and across the entire country. Canada’s Sesquicentennial will have been celebrated by people from coast to coast to coast, some awesome memories will have been created and we will all have had an opportunity to reflect on, and gain a greater appreciation for, this amazing country that we call home.
Perhaps someone will one day be asked….”You are old enough to have been around in 2017…what do you remember most about it”? On December 31, 2017 I’ll be very happy if I know that Toronto will have given people great experiences they will want to remember fifty years from now.