Monday, February 7, 2011

More Museum-Access Facts From This Mag Commenters

There's some nice comments both online and in the letters section of the current issue of This Magazine about my charticle Admission Impossible, which was published in the Nov/Dec issue. I wanted to reproduce some fascinating facts that commenter meg added to the discussion:

This [museum access] is no new problem; shortly after the AGO was ratified as the Art Museum of Toronto in 1900, the Toronto Board of Control attempted to secure free admission every wednesday and saturday to improve access. [see: 'Toronto Gets a Gallery: The Origins and Development of the City's Permanent Public Art Museum” David Kimmel, Ontario History, The Quarterly Journal of the Ontario Historical Society, Volume 84, No. 3, September 1992 ]

My research shows as well that before the signing of the ROM act (1912) when they were really under the jurisdiction of U of T, there were university statutes in place to keep the museum 'free for the public'. [Statutes of U of T – Statutute 23 'Of the Museum']

Can you imagine governments and boards of control advocating today for Saturdays to be free at local museums? Or all week? We'd experience these spaces very differently, I think. To read the original article go here.

Related to this issue, I wanted to provide an update on the ROM's redeveloped plan on access, which I mentioned in the charticle and which was due to the Ontario Legislature's Standing Committee on Government Agencies in December. I got a copy of the plan today from the clerk of the committee.

On the plus side, the ROM has committed to offering two hours of free access on Wednesday afternoons, rather than just one, for the rest of 2011. On the negative side, those two hours (3:30-5:30pm) aren't all that accessible to a lot of folks given everyday working hours in Toronto.

I'd like to view the new ROM plan as "a start", and would feel better about that if the ROM, in its report, didn't try to make the politicos think that "free admission" has to mean 24/7 free admission. ie. "Free admission to the public would require replacing [all admissions] revenue, approximately $13M. Financial models of international museums which offer free admission suggests that this would only be possible for the ROM with increased financial support from other sources."

The ROM also takes a slightly presumptive turn when it argues "It’s important to note that visitor admission support much more than exhibitions. For example, each ticket sold contributes to help fund ROM international research. ROM curators continue to make new discoveries, conduct global research and field work and to enhance international scientific knowledge. As well, the ROM maintains custodial responsibility for over six million objects. Many artifacts are used for research and education and are not on public display."

Nowhere is it acknowledged here that Ontario residents (those visitors that the committee specifically requested an improved access plan for) already contribute to the research and exhibitions of the museum through taxes, which provided $18 million dollars of funding to the museum in 2008/2009. The museum also fails to mention that these taxes also fund the much trumpeted ROM CAN access program to the tune of $1.3 million per year.

Just wondering how the museum would react if a taxpayer wrote them to say "It's important to note that my tax dollars support much more than exhibitions. So please give me the permanent-collection access that I'm entitled to."

It's also sad to see that the museum cites visitor-exit surveys as a fair-cost indicator, when it would be more appropriate to survey those who can't get through the door in the first place.

In any case, if you want a copy of the ROM's plan you can get it by contacting committee clerk Katch Koch at katch_koch [at] or 416-325-3526. (I'd upload it but am unsure if this is permitted... will check.)

(Image of original Admission Impossible chart from This Magazine)


Ingrid Mida said...

What an eloquent argument you make. Having worked behind the scenes at a museum, it is evident that money is tight and putting on first class exhibitions takes big bucks. If Toronto museums had more free access, the exhibits might not change that frequently with the resultant revenue drop. It's a tough balance.

Leah Sandals said...

Hi Ingrid,

I hear you. I provide the perspective of someone who doesn't and hasn't worked in a museum. I know people inside do have a very different experience and perspective. I think both are valid.

In the end, what I feel upset about is that I do see museums not just putting up exhibitions and doing research with their funds, but building new facilities, and raising hundreds of millions of dollars for that, but not even a dozen million for regular fair access of citizens to the permanent collection.

I do understand there's a balance needed, but the danger I also perceive is that the higher admission prices get, the less the public feels ownership of the museums, and the less they want to fund them. It has the potential to be a vicious cycle.

Michael Maranda said...

In response to the money is tight scenario, it is indeed. No question.

The question is, however, whether high admission prices are fulfilling the mandate of the organisations (I would argue not).

Strategically, low (or non-existent) admission fees could go a long way towards not only illustrating, but enhancing, the general populations' support of publicly funded culture. In addition, could this not also increase the lure of corporate donations which are, in essence, a form of advertising? A targeted campaign towards enabling open access, perhaps? Akin to what the Powerplant does in the summer already?

Leah Sandals said...

Hi Michael,

Thanks for your comment.

It gets at another thing that is indeed upsetting about these high admission fees (and/or lack of adequate access programs to offset them) -- that they contravene the mandate of many museums to provide as much public access as possible to the permanent collection.

Good point about the Power Plant program. With the departure of PP director Gregory Burke announced this AM, the gallery is trying to call attention to a potential legacy like this for him. From the press release:

"In 2006, Burke launched All Summer, All Free, a program providing free admission
to tens of thousands of visitors to The Power Plant. This program, combined with other new
public programs, has led to The Power Plant increasing visitation by more than 250% during
Burke’s tenure. "

I don't know how firm a figure "visitation" is or what it means, but yes I love the All Summer All Free program and I think it must remove at least some barriers to access--and make a visit by first timers more palatable, even though admission at the PP is only in the 5-6 dollar range.

On the flipside, I'm not naive enough to think that free admission periods is "enough" outreach. Of course other kinds of outreach are needed to build relationships with the public. But the effect of economic barriers, at the same time, shouldn't be ignored.