ROM barriers crystal clear

The $262 million glass peaks will be a source of pride, but only for those who can afford the admission


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One of the greatest delights of exploring the new Michael Lee-Chin Crystal is the way its slash-cut windows and portals reframe the city, helping us view our architectures and society with fresh eyes.

Sadly, Renaissance ROM and its own societal biases also need a little reframing.

This building promised in part to serve as a source of civic pride. But now that the free preview weekend has ended, who will feel this pride privileged Torontonians on the inside looking out, or less well-to-do citizens on the outside looking in?

With admissions fees pegged at $20 for adults, $17 for seniors and students, and $14 for children over the age of five, it’s no wonder that Shrek The Third and Spider-Man 3 seem more plausible to our city’s kids than Tyrannosaurus rex or the butterfly’s life cycle. (There is deep-discounted admission for all on Friday nights, but that’s just five hours a week.)

Though cultural institutions across Canada are cash-strapped (and seem particularly so when the issue of admission fees arises), the ROM has raised $262 million (and counting) for Renaissance ROM.

At the extreme, that’s $262 million that could have provided free entry to the old ROM for 13.1 million visitors 10 years’ worth. More moderately, $2.5 million could have meant free admission one day or half-day a week for a year. But Renaissance ROM’s goals were expressly about space, not equitable access to space. Too bad.

Even more maddeningly, the ROM press releases pitch the expansion as including renovation of over “150,000 square feet of public space” and creation of 175,000 square feet of “new galleries and public spaces.”

But these are, more accurately, public-who-have-paid-admission, public-who-are-dining-in-cafés and public-who-are-shopping-in-expanded-boutique spaces in other words, not truly public.

To be fair, I suspect it’s harder to sell a donor on admission sponsorship than on sponsorship of a space they can actually walk through. Still, there must be some way of recognizing contributions of this kind, whether it be through a plaque, naming rights (Wirth Wednesdays? Munk Mondays?), a special event or all of the above.

Though public access to cultural institutions is shrinking here, other cities find ways to respect the public that funds them. The UK’s National Gallery website states on its homepage that “These pictures belong to the public and entrance to see them is free.”

ROM press releases say that it is “an agency of the government of Ontario,” a somewhat softer statement merely hinting at the fact that the 6 million objects in its collection belong to all Ontarians whether they can afford to see them or not.

At the new ROM “luxury retail boutique” (their words, not mine), newly converted crystal fans can buy everything from a 69-cent postcard to a $12,000 Libeskind-designed chair.

Now, I offer a crystal souvenir even that swanky shop doesn’t carry: for $2.5 million, or whatever else it might take to make one whole day a week at the ROM free to Torontonians, I will provide an original sketch of the Lee-Chin Crystal on a napkin, this one with its long-lost heart drawn inside.

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Leah Sandals is arts editor for Spacing Magazine.

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