Friday, June 29, 2012

Free Museum Admissions on Canada Day: Time to Step Up Beyond the Holiday

I was happy this week to hear that the National Gallery of Canada would be providing free admission to its permanent collection on Canada Day. I was also glad to hear the Art Gallery of Alberta would be providing free admission to both the collection and temporary exhibitions on July 1. I haven't done much further research on other museums that normally charge admission providing free access on the upcoming holiday, but I can only presume there are others.

Yet, at the same time as I'm glad about these patriotic public-access gestures, I feel some disappointment or disbelief--definitely, at least, some ambivalence. The collection at the NGC belongs to all Canadians every day of the year, so trotting out free access as a one-off holiday "extra" tends, in my view, to reinforce the idea that public access is really not a something the public should expect in the long term. Ditto for Albertans vis a vis the Art Gallery of Alberta's collection.

It is also disappointing to me that our major public art museums in English Canada do not, by and large, even honour the tradition of free museum admission on or around International Museums Day. Montreal has a strong program of this kind, which is no surprise, some might say, given the different ethos and funding situations there. The NGC has also stepped up, offering free admission this year on May 20. But the AGO, the AGA, and the VAG don't seem to take part in this outreach effort, let alone non-art museums like the ROM and the Glenbow. (I could be wrong, and would be happy to be corrected!)

Perhaps this lack of International Museums Day isn't a surprise given that the Canadian Museums Association itself, though giving a nod to the possibility of free admission, suggests that for International Museums Day museums should invite in a local MP rather than the wider public.

I write this post with some trepidation given that it is unpleasant for me personally to focus on such disappointments. To state the obvious, it is not always fun to be a negative voice.

This is especially true when there is a lot to be proud of in the Canadian art community--like the fact that many galleries and museums, public, private or otherwise, do offer the public free access to art every day of the year. I simply continue to feel regret when the institutions charged with growing and maintaining "publicly owned" collections fail to provide the public with adequate free access to them. I also feel disappointed that many of our institutions can't seem to get it together to do at least something along the lines of New York City's Art Museums Day (another Intl Museums Day related event).

I do wish everyone a terrific holiday! I'll be headed to the beach, hopefully.

(Photograph taken by Jared Grove (Phobophile) and posted at Wikimedia)


m.a.tateishi said...

This is an interesting topic for me, as I used to go the National Gallery annually when I visited family in Ottawa. It used to be free to see the permanent collection, which always shocked me, and I actually considered it fair when they did start charging admission since I always had such a fantastic time exploring their extensive collection. As a business practice, users should pay for services, whether publicly funded or not.

The Vancouver Art Gallery here is quite expensive and such a small space that it depends on the temporary shows as to whether or not it is worthwhile. The Rennie Collection, on the other hand, is free and always provides an incredible experience since a guided tour is included. Perhaps more private museums are the future? I recently attended a museum show in Los Angeles that was free for the day, sponsored by Target. It was packed, which wouldn't happen if the museum was always free, since people tend to take such things for granted.

One thing I've noticed in Europe is that museums are free for schoolchildren. I think this the best compromise as you would like to get the gallery habit engrained in people early, so they'll go to museums all their lives, and hopefully not mind about the admission fees.

Leah Sandals said...

Hi M.A.,

Thanks for your heartfelt comment.

I absolutely agree with you that the visiting our National Gallery's extensive collection is a fantastic experience.

And I understand, as you point out, that many public galleries have challenges to deal with in terms of expensive spaces.

Where we likely differ is the application of "business practices" like user fees for publicly funded services.

But public galleries such as the National Gallery are not businesses. They are highly publicly funded institutions, and the collections that they amass are held in the public trust.

There are excellent museums in Canada and elsewhere that have free access to their permanent collections (or a lot more free access to their public collections) for just this reason. The Smithsonian museums in Washington, DC; the Tate, National Gallery and British Museum in London; and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts are just a few examples of museums with free access to their permanent collections. Other museums, like the Prado in Madrid, have free access to the permanent collection every day after 6pm.

Given your strong feeling that admission fees are deserved, I don't have any illusion that I will change your mind on this point.

Basically, I love public museums too; I just want them to meet the basic requirements of their own mandates in terms of public access to public collections.

Leah Sandals said...

Sorry, that should be "Public galleries such as the National Gallery are not businesses." -- no prefacing "But" required! : )