A New Home for Canada’s Music

Muse Magazine May/June 2013

When Andrew Mosker was hired in 1998 to tend a Calgary collection of keyboard instruments, he had little idea what it would evolve into. Fifteen years later, ceremonial spades were turning sod to launch construction of a new 163,000 square foot home for Canada’s National Music Centre. It’s a first of its kind, more than a museum—a Canadian place that amplifies the love, sharing and understanding of music in so many creative ways. And it all grew through years of partnership and collaboration.

Evolution of the NMC concept

“My boss at the time said to me, ‘we want to build a museum, but we don’t really know what we want to do with it’,” recalls Mosker, NMC’s president & CEO. “You figure it out. Here’s a small space and a small budget.” So he created an exhibition about the evolution of keyboard instruments which opened in July 1998.

The keyboard focus came about when the year before, a philanthropic Calgary family gifted a pipe organ to the city’s new Jack Singer Concert Hall. Simon Preston, a well-regarded concert organist from Britain, was invited to play the inaugural concert. In a small way this launched the evolution of the NMC concept: “One of the individuals from the [donating] family thought this was an interesting phenomenon in terms of community gathering and celebration of music; of those things that we knew and understood the power of music to bring people together,” says Mosker.

An international organ festival followed, from 1990 to 2002. Midway through that run, Irene Besse, a festival board member and local keyboard shop owner, initiated the notion of a small keyboard museum and connected the board with some collectors. Along with a piano competition which shared staff and board members, the Chinook Keyboard Centre was launched.

The collection grew and so did Mosker’s plans. He had just graduated from Grant MacEwan College (now MacEwan University) as a keyboard player and had a BA in history and a Masters in musicology and knew this museum could be much more. He realized the 20th century needed to be there. “A whole transformation happened in music because of electricity,” he says, “microphones, radio, recording and new styles of music.” It was a deviation from straight keyboard instruments, building a comprehensive collection of music technology. From 1998 to 2005, Cantos Music Foundation—as it was renamed—built its collection and programs around that.

Over those years, Mosker travelled the world visiting historic music sites, seeking to learn how people celebrate music and how every museum has its own story. “It was sort of the gestation period of the NMC,” he says. “I was looking at museums and public places and the interface between collections and the public.” What gradually dawned on him was that we have no national music museum in Canada. “There was no place where you can go to learn about the contributions that music has made to this country, on a 365-day basis. We have the Museum of Civilization, the Science and Technology Museum and others, and many small music organizations that celebrate some portion of music in Canada like the Anne Murray Centre or the Hank Snow Museum.”

Longer-term visions began to crystallize. Mosker reckoned Canada has distinct regions each with its own musical flavour: Atlantic, Ontario, Quebec, the West and the North. “So I came up with the idea of five regions and five stories and themes,” he says. “Then 2005 was the Alberta centennial. We did a very simple retrospective of one hundred years of music in Alberta. I wanted to do this on a national basis—merging this country in a 21st century manner and fuse the past, the history of our heritage through unique programs that can serve as a springboard for developing our voice for music for the future.”

The current picture

As the scope broadened, in February 2012 it was renamed the National Music Centre. It now boasts over 2,000 instruments and artifacts, most of them in working order, from a 1560 Virginal to a dazzling blue grand piano built to commemorate 100 years of George Gershwin. Researchers and musicians have available historic pieces of technology from the Rolling Stones’ original mobile studio to one of Elton John’s first pianos. Many are loaned out to communities under the centre’s Ensemble program. For performances, the Creative Spaces program has gained a solid reputation amongst music, arts, and industry organizations as a top performance venue. And there’s a regular artist-in-residence.

It’s largely a working collection, so “it’s always a challenge when you are preserving something and trying to keep it living at the same time,” says Jesse Moffatt, NMC’s Manager, Collections and Artifact Care. “About eight years ago we started amassing a huge inventory of parts which have become obsolete in a lot of instances.” He cites challenges such as an early synthesizer that’s programmable only with an old Commodore 64 computer.

But access is important to the NMC. “That’s what totally sets us apart,” says Moffatt. “Our approach to accessing some of our collections in a responsible manner is unique.” To prudently monitor usage, NMC collaborated with the Canadian Conservation Institute to create an instrument use matrix. “Essentially you can go through this matrix and ascertain how often an instrument should be used,” explains Moffatt.

Collaboration’s key role

Mosker concedes that none of it could have happened—nor could they go forward with the National Music Centre concept—without extensive collaborations and partnerships. “What happened early on was we were forced into collaboration because of a lack of resources,” he says. “Every non-profit I think in the last ten years has talked about the need to collaborate and we’ve just been doing it.”

There’s another reason collaboration plays a critical role with this organization. When the NMC idea was evolving, it was realized they didn’t want to become the authority on all things music in Canada. “This is where we differ,” says Mosker. “Music is just far too subjective.” They wanted to avoid ‘teaching down’ by experts. “Traditional museums are based around a curatorial philosophy but we felt it was more important to have a conversation with people who are passionate and knowledgeable about music, versus saying ‘here are our curators and this is the voice and the authority on music’. We did not want to do that. That was a conscious decision. So it invariably led to collaboration.”

So from the start, the centre’s performance space was “the playground, the sandbox,” says Mosker. “Artists, teachers, any organization that had something to do with music were invited to come and use it, build their programs—using our collection if possible.” Collaborations continued: the Calgary Folk Festival, the Calgary jazz festivals, Calgary Board of Education, school boards, independent artists, Mount Royal University, University of Calgary to name but a few.

It expanded nationally. The 2008 JUNO awards held in Calgary were a hall of fame idea springboard for example. “The JUNO awards don’t have the resources for a hall of fame,” says Mosker. “So we come along, plug into their network and their history and help them with their hall of fame.” The collaboration continues with a recent JUNO-themed exhibit ‘Fashion and Film Forum’ at the Regina Public Library and Dunlop Art Gallery, where NMC put together an exhibit this year to coincide with the awards ceremony. “In April there will be four different JUNO-nominated movies and we provided the exhibition component of textiles,” says Moffatt. “For example we have Buffy Sainte-Marie’s outfit that she wore for her 1995 induction and k.d. lang’s famous wedding dress.” This was on the heels of previous JUNO/NMC collaborations such as displays for the Canadian National Exhibition and Toronto’s Pearson International Airport, as well as the interactive music-trivia game ‘The Great Canadian Music Challenge’.

The new digs

As the concept grew, it became clear the NMC’s current space was far too small. “There are halls of fame that need homes, artists that need a place to work and incubate new ideas,” says Mosker. “There are school children who need to understand how music impacts their learning. There are scientists and researchers interested in the neuroscience of music and the body and how they relate. There are people like you and I who often visit museums looking for an authentic experience.”

So in 2009 they initiated an international design competition for a new building. “That was another collaborative spirit,” says Mosker. “We engaged the best minds from around the world, built a national adjudication team from across the country to help select the right fit to become the National Music Centre.”

Awarded to Allied Works Architecture, the structure has accolades from design magazines and critics around the world. It was recently written up as one of the ‘10 Projects We’re Following in 2013’ by AZURE magazine. “Innovative, forward-looking and socially relevant is how we like to describe the projects and ideas we feature,” states the magazine’s website. “Harmoniously melding massive volumes and sinuous curves, the National Music Centre in Calgary will strike a chord between functional spaces and architectural rhapsody.” It will house a museum, two performance theatres, an education centre, a recording studio and a broadcast centre. It will host the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame and eventually the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. The original home of Calgary’s blues, the King Edward Hotel—fondly known as the King Eddy—is incorporated into the stunning design, to house live and work studios adjacent to the recording studios.

Special features and exhibits on hall of fame inductees are planned. “Partners like the NMC are very important to our program honouring our legends,” says Don Green, president of the Canadian Country Music Association. “The CCMA and the NMC have a shared interest and appreciation of Canadian country music history and culture. Beyond that, the NMC will be the exclusive manager of the collection of artifacts related our Hall of Fame program, the CCMA will be supporting the NMC in telling the stories of this genre of music.”

And the collaboration with CARAS and the JUNO Awards is to include the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. “We have entered into an agreement to increase our resources, experience and the goals of both organizations,” says Melanie Berry, president & CEO, CARAS/The JUNO Awards & MusiCounts. “This will help to realize the long-term establishment of the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and provide another venue that promotes and celebrates Canadian artists and their music. It will create a platform for understanding, exploring and preserving the story of Canadian music both past, present and future.” Berry fully endorses the value of collaborations like these. “We have found that there is value when arts organizations come together,” she says. “It creates an expansion of ideas, extensive resources with the ultimate goal of promoting our cultural identity and industry.”

Collaborations continue wide-ranging. In August 2012 NMC signed a partnership MOU with the Canada Science and Technology Museum which “has a significant collection of musical technology, particularly mechanical and electronic instruments, which forms part of our communications collection,” says Bryan Dewalt, Curator; Communications for CSTM, who participates in NMC’s exhibitions advisory committee. “These objects are a unique resource for helping us understand the place of technology in the evolution of our culture.” The MOU acknowledges that both organizations share similar goals and commits them to ‘share collections, to collaborate on exhibitions, to undertake collaborative collecting, and in future, to develop joint programs.’

Dewalt sees two reasons collaborations are indispensable today. “Museums are increasingly asked by funding agencies to do more with less, so we must focus on what we do best and look for partners with whom we can share resources,” he says. “Second, collaboration contributes to the building of an intellectual community that, through the exchange of information over time, contributes to the creation of new knowledge.”

Twenty-one galleries are planned, each with a specific theme of music in Canada and for some, how it dovetails with global music technology. “The intersection of the music in Canada theme with our music technology collection will clearly be a one-of-a-kind experience,” enthuses Mosker, “a Canadian experience and Canadian perspective.”

Pulling those themes together will be Haley Sharpe Design, a firm whose credits include the Canadian War Museum and ROM exhibits. Jan Faulkner, Creative Director / Partner, describes their initial meetings with the NMC. “We quickly identified that the experience should not be geographically driven, should not be organized by genre or be mapped out as a chronology,” he says. “Instead we should identify a series of thematically orientated titles that would allow multiple perspectives or voices to be ‘heard’ using working titles such as Idea of Canada, Canada on Stage, Inventors and Creators, Famous Firsts, Body and Mind, Voice…”

Exhibits aren’t to be static. “It was agreed that about 60% of the content should be flexible, to be able to move around the building, be updated and changed,” says Faulkner. “A major part of the intent was that the design approach will ensure visitors make an emotional connection to the content or theme just by the atmosphere, the look and feel of a gallery, the use of images and of course by the use of a specially constructed soundtrack that would be individual to each gallery, underpinning a festival feel.” He describes the building as a series of vessels that open into a common circulation space that also links the experience or themes vertically and horizontally. “These interstitial spaces are how the ‘vessels’ or ‘galleries’ would link to each via the audio soundscape created for each gallery mingling and travelling across the building.”

Faulkner says the interpretive text for the displays would be written and presented in a magazine style that would allow for multiple writers to be involved across multiple themes – each writing articles on common sub-themes, in different styles or voices: the project becoming collaborative, layered and accessible to all.

Construction is under way. Ceremonial spades—cleverly fashioned as guitars—in the hands of dignitaries including Alberta premier Alison Redford and Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi, along with singer Anne Murray turned the first sod on the afternoon of February 22nd.

The capital project is $135 million. Mosker says about $95 million has been raised so far, including $25 million from three levels of government. Discussions continue with potential corporate and philanthropic sponsors. But not just anyone. “It has to be the right cultural fit,” says Mosker. “The core values of whoever that company is and the NMC have to align.”


“Our biggest challenge right now is awareness,” says Mosker. “And clarity around our vision. We are inventing an institution. When you’re inventing something from scratch people have questions—they’re not clear how it’s going to impact them, how is it going to be national, what is a National Music Centre exactly? Getting that message out about what the NMC is, through story telling of all the things we’ve been doing here in the last ten years, and the things we are going to do in the new building, is an important part of our communication strategy.”

And the NMC will continue to grow and evolve from that original keyboard collection. “The NMC is aspirational,” says Mosker, “it’s never complete. It serves as the hub in a wheel.”

Visit the National Music Centre at http://www.nmc.ca

Click the link below to read article on line with illustrations

A New Home for Canada's Music

Copyright 2017 Graham Chandler | All Rights Reserved | Contact | Site by Element Media Ltd