Thursday, November 24, 2011

Free Collection Admission at the National Gallery of Canada on the Way? Q&A with NGC Director Marc Mayer at

Last week, National Gallery of Canada director Marc Mayer gave free public talks in Toronto and Winnipeg on an often-controversial topic in the arts: taxpayers’ money. In it, Mayer discussed misconceptions that the general public and art insiders alike often have about art, artists, art museums and the art economy. He also spoke about his wish to make art more accessible to all Canadians.

Today, published my condensed follow-up phone interview with Mayer. In it, we discuss the gallery’s budget (slated this year at approximately $58 million), where it comes from, and what he’s planning on doing with it in the future. The most exciting financial development for me is that Mayer says he would like to restore free permanent-collection access at the National Gallery. (I write "restore" because it did used to be free to visit the NGC collection, but today it costs adults $9 for the majority of the week, one free evening excepted.)

Here's an excerpt from the interview:

Leah Sandals: In your talk, you noted that Canadian taxpayers provide 85% of National Gallery of Canada’s funding. You also said that you would like the gallery’s permanent collection to be free for taxpayers to see, just like collections are in public museums abroad that have similar funding arrangements, like the Smithsonian and Tate. How are you going to make this free permanent-collection access happen at the NGC?

Marc Mayer: Well, it’s complicated, and we’re trying to figure it out. We’re actually trying to find someone to sponsor it. We think that makes more sense, that someone should take credit for that kind of generosity. And there are various sponsorship options, so that’s really what we’re looking at, because it’s a considerable amount of lost revenue. We think, of course, that [over the long term] there would be a gain in revenue, because more people would come to the gallery—but not in the first couple of years; it takes a while for people to get used to the idea that the permanent collection is free and that they can come anytime.

LS: The latest quarterly figures the gallery has posted online indicate that admission fees only account for a small portion of total revenues—2.2%—with much of that figure coming from tickets to special exhibitions rather than tickets to the permanent collection. So what are the obstacles, then, to restoring free permanent-collection admission?

MM: 2.2% is a lot of money on 58 million dollars. And we can’t afford to lose any money. So the main obstacle is the money. But we’re also part of a network of national museums; would our decision force them to [do something similar]? What is the ministry’s position on this? All those issues, we haven’t figured them out yet. But I do feel strongly that Canadians should have access without barriers as much as possible to the national collection, particularly those who bothered to come all the way out to Ottawa. So that’s what we’re trying to figure out.

Read on at for the rest of our exchange, which addresses Canadian vs. non-Canadian acquisitions, the gallery's new biennial, its re-involvement in the Venice Biennale's Canada Pavilion, MASS MoCA's massive show of Canuck art next year and more.

I was thankful that Mayer was willing to speak to these topics, often in a frank manner, and I'm grateful to the University of Toronto Art Centre and the Winnipeg Art Gallery for hosting his talks. Here's a few other thoughts on the talk and chat that I wasn't able to squeeze into the interview:
  • In his talk, Mayer said that the gallery is working on having an extended wall label for every collections object on display. To this, I say, hallelujah. A lot of people who visit art museums (especially new visitors) are often left hanging when it comes to being provided with some tools or information for interpreting the art on display. Or at least some context! Mayer said that one of his priorities on this front is to get a label for Barnett Newman's Voice of Fire, which has been one of the most notorious paintings in Canada for the past 20 years, but bears no trace of this context (or any other context, be it historical, formal or financial) in its gallery presentation. He also mentioned Newman's Yellow Edge in this label discussion, which I was especially glad to hear because at Speed Art Criticism this year, some earnest non-artster came up to me just really wanting to understand why the heck that work was in the National Gallery. Hopefully the label will offer some of that explanation to people!
  • Mayer also said during the talk that he's not just looking for art-historical context in these labels, but different kinds of stories or angles with which visitors may better understand (or inquire about) the art on display. I agree that providing multiple vectors of entry into artworks is a good idea.
  • On the more humorous end of things, Mayer said during his talk that the Group of Seven era "frankly hadn't interested me all that much until recently." He did go on to note, however, that many members of the public and the critics decried the National Gallery's acquisitions of Group of Seven works as a waste of taxpayer money a century ago, and that public outcry is to be expected of art-museum acquisitions, in a way, since the mission of contemporary curators at most national art museums is not to document the best-loved art of their time but rather what is likely the most game-changing art of their time. (Because some people rightfully decry the overuse of the word "game-changer" these days, I'll clarify that that's my word choice, not Mayer's.)
  • Mayer noted that at talks like these (and I would extend, of course, that in interviews like these) he is largely preaching to the converted. This made me think afterwards: how could he reach a wider audience and vice versa? There were jokes about interrupting a sports event, but it did make me think, again, of the Speed Art Criticism event at Nuit Blanche, which to me is a really interesting opportunity to meet a public that is art-interested, but not art-ingratiated.
  • I'll end this post with a quote from the talk that I found interesting: "Our greatest efforts need to be the creation of a much bigger audience for art, both new and old. We need to think much harder about how to do that, and focus our research and cogitation on the cause of connecting Canadians to their most ambitious culture. That's what the National Gallery is thinking about above all other concerns these days, I can promise you. Indeed, that is what the National Gallery is for." (I myself actually suspect Mayer is likely juggling many more concerns than just audience development, but I appreciate him making the point.)
(Image of National Gallery of Canada director Marc Mayer courtesy the NGC and via

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