Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Lost Art of Access: A Feature in today's Toronto Star

This weekend, Canada’s first-ever Culture Days hopes to attract thousands of people to free events at under-visited galleries, theatres, studios and arts organizations across the nation. But while Culture Days is bound to be jubilant, it’s doubtful that a single weekend can reverse the decade-long decline in arts access in Canada.

From coast to coast, admission fees for traditional cultural institutions such as the symphony, opera, museums and ballet have risen well beyond the rate of inflation. At the Vancouver Art Gallery, fees have increased to $19.50 from $10 — a boost of 95 per cent. At the Art Gallery of Ontario, which raised $276 million for its transformation — helped by CEO Matthew Teitelbaum, who collected $945,498 in salary and bonuses last year — general admission has increased to $19.50 from $5, a rise of more than 200 per cent.

What’s more, many measures that once provided some guaranteed public access, such as free outdoor performances by the National Ballet and the Canadian Opera Company, or daily free access to the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Canada — have also disappeared over the past 10 years. Since 2000, the traditional museum-access measure of one free evening per week (a minimum practice still upheld by New York’s MOMA, the Art Institute of Chicago, and many other reputable museums) has become particularly endangered in Canada. It’s being phased out, from Vancouver’s Museum of Anthropology to Edmonton’s Art Gallery of Alberta to the Winnipeg Art Gallery to Toronto’s own Royal Ontario and Gardiner museums. (More than a few of these access cuts have come on the heels of multi-million-dollar renovation projects.)

Over the past few weeks, I've been in touch with institutions and experts across the continent about this decline in arts access, and what threats it holds for us both as a society and as individuals. You can read some of the results of that research in my feature article in today's Toronto Star--particularly on the Star's website, where the article, trimmed for print publication, appears in full. An excerpt:

It’s not just culturati who are hurting from reduced arts access — the general public is, too. In June, the Canadian Index of Well-being linked reduced rates of citizen wellness to a need for “equity and inclusion” in the cultural realm and the fact that “leisure and culture activities are becoming more expensive.”

The upshot can be social, as well as individual, breakdown. “Culture carries values,” as Simon Brault, vice-chair of the Canada Council, CEO of the National Theatre School and author of the recently released book No Culture, No Future, explains. “If we want to live in a society where we can still share common values, despite the fact that we come from different parts of the world, we need more deeply rooted culture and artistic expression.”

Some statistics from Hill Strategies, an arts-focused research firm, support this theory of the arts as a catalyst for social cohesion, finding that people who participate in cultural activities are more likely to have done favours for their neighbours and are more likely to volunteer in their communities.

Even if social cohesion and public wellness weren’t on the table, a case could be made for public arts access as a requirement of public funding: The most recent Hill Strategies figures show that 67 per cent of museum and gallery revenues and 27 per cent of performing-arts organization revenues still come from the public purse. (This access principle has been successfully applied in some other jurisdictions.)

In terms of other jurisdictions, I'm referencing examples like the Auckland Museum, which is mostly funded by municipalities and recently made it free for Auckland residents to visit. I'm also referencing places like the Art Institute of Chicago and the Shedd Aquarium, which offer discounts for Chicago residents.

Thanks to Nina K. Simon for sharing her views for the article as well, and shedding light on the non-economic parts of arts access issues, which appear later on in the feature. I also really enjoyed talking with Paul Whitney, city librarian at the Vancouver Public Library, who suggested how tradition and legislation can affect access to arts institutions. Actually, everyone I spoke with was very generous, and I only wish more of it could have made it into the article. For now, you can read the whole feature here, though the sidebars, for now, only seem to be in the paper.

(Image of guide and visitors at the Glasgow Museum Resource Centre, a particularly accessible institution housing the Glasgow Open Museum, which allows visitors to touch and even borrow artifacts to create their own exhibitions elsewhere)


mashley said...

Culture Days has the surprisingly similar scent of Luminato. Who benefits?

Leah Sandals said...

Hey mashley,

That is a good question. I have heard whispers that some of the people behind Luminato are also behind Culture Days... is that in part what you are referring to? Or maybe it's a cause for some similarity.

Likely the story on the worth and history of Culture Days could be an interesting article in itself.

I would hope, at best, that some members of the public benefit from Culture Days and that some overlooked arts groups do too. I would also hope in the long term that it might prompt some of the bigger arts orgs to reevaluate their outreach and free activities during the rest of the year.

At worst, Culture Days could be a gesture that, as you perhaps suggest, serves only to promote the supposed savvy of its organizers. Or be something that benefits the organizers more than the participants, I guess.

I'm hoping for the former but steeling for the latter.

mashley said...

It appears to be Harper's way back into the arts and the arms of his wife before next election.

MK said...

This is so important to highlight and keep highlighting as a problem. Hats off to you Leah, for consistently pointing out the problem of access to the arts.

Leah Sandals said...

Hey mashley... and I thought I got personal in my interpretation of culture! Huh.

Thanks Michelle for your support. Sometimes I feel like a total weirdo because there aren't that many people covering this stuff!