Monday, November 15, 2010

Admission Impossible: Museum Fees Chart now out in This Magazine

Last month, at the When Critics Speak panel for Nuit Blanche, I got on a bit of a jag, as I so often do, about economic barriers to gallery and museum access in Canada.

But I also appreciated the response of audience member Kim Simon, well-respected curator at Gallery TPW, who shouted out that many of the major museums and galleries are hard up for cash, which is why they have to charge what I consider to be such high admission fees.

In discussing the matter with Kim, I came to the conclusion that both things may be true, that:
(a) Many major public galleries and museums in Canada have implemented significant (sometimes internationally unusual) economic barriers to public access in the form of high admission fees and eliminated free hours
(b) Many major public galleries and museums in Canada genuinely feel strapped for cash

I haven't any solutions to this conundrum, but to me the fact remains that it is in the mandate of many public galleries and museums to provide public access to their permanent (ie. public-owned) collections, and that they need to figure out how to restore levels of access to international norms—no matter how strapped they may be feeling.

In continuation of the discussion on this theme, I have a small charticle out in the current November/December issue of This Magazine. It's called "Admission Impossible" and lists data to the effect that Canada's museums are among the most expensive, least accessible in the world.

Since writing the piece, I've become more aware of some more nuanced barriers to public access in cultural institutions--things like daytime-centric hours of operation and codes of behaviour--that are explored at length by more expert sources like Nina K. Simon and Simon Brault.

However, I do believe economic access is still at a substandard level in Canada's major museums and galleries, a fact that is particularly surprising given admission fees only tend to make up a small (5-15%) portion of museum revenues.

What other things do you think are true about museum management in Canada? Both for good and for bad? Feel free to post. Also feel free to read the rest of the This article here.

(Image from This Magazine)


Anonymous said...

In the UK, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, entered into a deal to support free admission to all National Museums in 2000. In the last decade, museums and galleries that previously charged have seen an increase in visitors of 128%. And when Governments have even whispered the possibility of halting this deal, the public outcry has been so huge the talk has always ended before it's begun. Most of these museums still charge for temporary exhibitions, and make up some of their earned revenue that way. It's a beautiful thing to be able to wander into the National Gallery at lunch or the Tate at the end of day to see a favourite piece, or a new permanent collection display. The ethos associated with the freeness makes these spaces feel a part of the public wealth, a part of the pubic realm - which of course they are - while expensive admission charges stunts that feeling.

Leah Sandals said...

Hi anonymous,

Thanks for your comment. I absolutely agree with you that the UK model is an inspiration.

I was also interested to read about their situation that even when no specific funding was provided for public permanent collection access in the 1990s and 1980s, the Tate and some other public museums still maintained free access to the permanent collection.

I would also point out that even the phenomenon of a few free hours per week has been eliminated at many Canadian museums over the past decade. So even seeing 4 hours a week reinstated as free would be a triumph of sorts for public access--though far from the end of the battle.

As I detailed in a feature in the Toronto Star in September, it was also in the past decade that daily free access to the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Canada was rescinded. It does still have free Thursday evenings for the collection, thank goodness, but the rescinding of the daily free hours is a real loss for Canadians, I think.

planforamiracle said...

I understand Kim Simon's comment that the institutions are not exactly flush with cash (thanks, Harper!)

But thinking of this, coming on the heels of what have been commonly termed "blockbuster" shows at places like the AGO (for example: King Tut, Drama & Desire, Julian Schnabel, and the upcoming Maharaja show), it seems to me that taming the blockbuster aspect would be a step in the right direction.
(In most cases I'm not basing this on much more than speculation, but the costs are high to borrow works from major institutions, and to ship valuable things across oceans.)

I'm not suggesting that galleries lower their ambitions, and I understand a certain celebrity allure is useful in attracting visitors (particularly non-members) to the galleries.

But, in the case of Drama & Desire, knowing how costly some of those paintings were to borrow from places like the Louvre, I question the value of relying on the big names. What I'm suggesting is that focusing the programming on works already in the AGO's collection, or in other Canadian institutions, would help balance the books.. and it'd bring the focus to more localized artists, arguably something it should be doing more of anyway.

Ingrid Mida said...

When I'm in London, I love it that the museums are free. I will go back to a museum several times, simply because I can. I wish Canadian museums could find a better solution or charge more reasonable prices. Art enriches our culture. It's a shame that governments feel that museums are the first place to make cut-backs.

Leah Sandals said...

Hi Elena and Ingrid,

Thanks for your comments.

I know blockbuster exhibitions get booked because the hope is that they will bring in revenue for the museum, ultimately. And I think we are seeing a lot more permanent-collections shows as a cost saving measure already. But you're right, Elena, sometimes the risks with the former don't pay off--and they also often don't contribute to viewers' understanding of Canadian art, either.

Ingrid, I'm with you. I think repeat visits are a great thing and that in the long run they can help bolster support for museums. Sometimes I wonder, given how slim admissions revenue is, whether the cause is solely government cutbacks or also other institutional factors. Like I said, I wonder about it, so I'll leave that as an open question. If others have information, please feel free to contribute.

mashley said...

I am reminded of your article on Ukeles, her practice could be applied not only to to cities but museums as well.
This is one of the several factors contributing to this situation that are often overlooked - damning governments is way too easy.