Ottawa – The room is buzzing with that uniquely art-world mixture of anticipation and cynicism, optimism and irony. It’s the three-day conference of the Canadian Museaums Association’s Visual Arts Summit here in a Crowne Plaza Hotel conference room.
The summit, the first of its kind in 40 years, brings together artists, museum heads, curators and gallery owners from across Canada to talk about building collections, dealing with the sky-high art market and my personal favourite, nurturing arts access.
I’m happy to see old art school friends, now variously attending as artists, MFA students, assistant curators and artist-run centre directors.
So this is what glamour on a Tory-slashed culture budget looks like.
The opening panel starts promisingly with what amounts to a shocker of an admission from a philanthropist-schmoozing museum director. AGO head Matthew Teitelbaum tells the room, “I used to think we had solved the problem of access to museums and that interpretation was the main issue. Now I realize access is a bigger issue than I thought.”
Wow, I’m thinking, this is getting tasty. As the education and access panel kicks off the following morning, I’m tingling with anticipation. Alas, there’s still lots of disappointing stuff to suffer through.
A critic for one of Canada’s national newspapers says he thinks the problem with arts ed is that kids aren’t taught the difference between “a good red” and “a bad red.”
“It’s peeved me since 1967 that the red in the Canadian flag is a bad red,” he jokes, to the guffaws of many assembled. He goes on to bash Nuit Blanche as “too many people coming down from the suburbs.” Not as many laughs on that one.
A museum director uses her limited time onstage to complain about a supposed lack of “visualcy” among members of the public as the root of attendance problems. Gee, is that what’s keeping the public away from oft-snooty, high-admission museums?
Then, just as I’m losing hope, along comes Dale Sheppard, an outreach coordinator from the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, who runs a program for street kids that offers a free dinner, studio time and a museum tour every Thursday evening.
When I catch up with Sheppard afterwards, she tells me, “We are a small museum, so we can do unusual partnerships more easily.’’
Teitelbaum tells me later that his revelation about access was prompted by a new AGO program giving one-year memberships to 700 new Canadians via their citizenship ceremony.
“Talking to our new Canadian participants gave me feedback. They told me they didn’t feel invited to the museum before,” he says. “I realized we need to make more of an effort to invite people in.”
So what does this mean for admission fees when the AGO reopens next November? Teitelbaum hedges; that issue is still in the works, he says. (The old entrance fee was $8 for adults.) But he confirms that free Wednesday evenings will continue, and that the AGO will distribute free passes to schools, assisted housing and community centres in a 5-kilometre radius.
He also hints that the citywide Museum and Arts Pass program, which allows library users at 20 branches to acquire a limited number of free gallery passes, will be enlarged.
By the end of the conference the next day, both speaker and audience comments have largely degenerated into random digressions on matters of individual interest, everything from “I’ve been screwed over by a lot of people in this room” to “Here’s my new project and I’d like to plug it.”
Amid the clamour, I note little progress on access. Part of the problem, it occurs to me, could be that most people who work for museums get into similar institutions – even those in other cities – for free by flashing their employee cards.
Where’s the personal motivation to do things differently?Chatting with conference attendee Sara Graham, I’m a bit heartened. A staffer at the Canadian Art Foundation, Graham organizes its annual School Hop, a program that conducts Queen West gallery visits and artist talks for high school kids from disadvantaged Toronto ’hoods.
So I return to Toronto determined to be positive. Less than a week later, my cynicism is restored when it comes to light that the ROM is trying to disperse hot dog vendors from the sidewalks.
The road to cultural access is, I guess, a bit longer than the drive to Ottawa.
Here’s how our museum and gallery admissions stack up
ROYAL ONTARIO MUSEUM, Toronto
CANADIAN MUSEUM OF CIVILIZATION, Ottawa
MONTREAL MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART
under 12 free
AMERICAN MUSEUM OF NATURALHISTORY, New York City
AdultsSuggested donation $15 (pwyc)
Students/seniors Suggested donation $11
Children Suggested donation $8.50
BRITISH MUSEUM, London, England
BALTIMORE MUSEUM OF ART
Adults and children Free
Adults 9 euros ($13.40)