Should museums be public spaces?

This Sunday marks the last day for Torontonians to preview empty galleries at the ROM Crystal. And today (Friday) is the only day of the preview (which started Monday) that it won’t cost you $20 to get in the door — admission drops to $5 for adults after 4:30pm.

To my mind, the crystal is a building worth seeing and experiencing from the inside as well as out. As a result, I’m concerned about whether this building — which belongs to a public institution and holds its collection in the public trust — will be financially accessible to most members of the public. These concerns were detailed in part in a NOW op-ed published yesterday. I wanted to elaborate on them more fully here.

In doing a little research (I’m no born museum buff, unfortunately) through the Canadian Museums Association, I found that most museums, the ROM included, work on the principle that their collection belongs to the public. Museums are exempt from taxes and receive funding from the government (and are created through acts of government) because they agree to both preserve and provide public access to those collections which represent our collective memory.

Museums worldwide deal with tension between the goals of preservation and access (not to mention competing concerns of inconsistent government funding) in different ways.

Some, like the London UK’s Natural History Museum, National Gallery and the Tate museums, charge no admission fee for their permanent collections, but do charge fees for admission to special and touring exhibitions. They also have concession pricing for the unwaged.

Others, like the Prado in Madrid, offer one free day a week (in their case, Sundays), as well as free admission every day to those under the age of 18, those over 65, the unemployed, and EU students.

And still others, like the New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and Museum of Natural History, operate on a “suggested donation” model, providing some leeway to those who can’t afford a $20 fee.

Looking at this array of public access options versus the ROM’s current policy of $20 per adult, $17 per student or senior, and $14 per child over the age of 5 during 93% of operating hours, I can only feel chagrin. The ROM’s new crystal purports to house an Institute for Contemporary Culture, yet it seems determined to shut actual contemporary culture making less than of $60,000 a year out.

If prestige and tourist numbers are Thorsell et al.’s rationale behind this high-end pricing scheme, they would do well to note that the sexily renovated Tate Modern (including its kinder admission policies) remains a huge tourist draw for visitors of all income levels.

What’s more, places like the Tate actually have a public life. I love going to a museum like that and seeing kids running around, seeing people unwrap their homemade sandwiches, knowing that people really feel the museum — and, by extension, “high culture” — belongs to them. So not only is it just, but actually wonderful and pleasant when people use (and, as precursor, are able to use) their museums as extensions of public space.

When will we be able to feel this way about Toronto-area “public” museums?

Image from Live With Culture.


  1. Museums receive little revenue from admissions, so it makes sense to have free admission. There would definately be many more visitors, more interest, and hence other possibilities for making up that funding. That’s just from a practical standpoint.

  2. Often free in Europe; also often free in Japan. Damn, I hate North American culture. Why don’t we turn our backs on our idiot cousins to the south, and find our examples from cultures less pathological.

  3. Unfortunately, “contemporary culture” being what it is, free admission would probably be traded off against screamingly prominent corporate sponsorship or, worse yet, unavoidably placed advertising. Would that be worth it?

  4. Our “idiot cousins” ensure free access to all of the Smithsonian museums in Washington, which is more than we do for any of our major museums. Maybe we could learn a thing or two from them after all.

    I was surprised that the Smithsonian wasn’t mentioned in the original article — not only is admission free, but it’s the largest set of museums in the world.

  5. Aiden> “Why don’t we turn our backs on our idiot cousins to the south” Thats a wide brush you are using, since most of the great museums in Washington are free as are many others across the US. Your anti-Americanism is at least very Canadian.

  6. Greg > As it is, the illegal billboards on the north side of Bloor are already unavoidably visible from inside the Crystal.

  7. The Toronto Public Library is in the midst of setting up a Museum Pass Program.

    The program would provide up to five free passes per week per library branch for cultural institutions like the ROM, AGO and Gardiner museum (we’re trying to get others involved, too). The pass, good for a family, would be picked up from a library branch and is good for one visit. To start, the passes will be available at the 24 library branches in the 13 priority neighbourhoods, with the intent to expand the program across Toronto.

    At this point, the questions that remain are who will fund the program and how will it be branded by that funder.

  8. A trip to a museum or the AGO doesn’t need to be a 3 or 4 hour ordeal. There are lots of times when i want to just pop in and spend 20 minutes looking at a particular piece, or take a quick walk through a specific gallery to ignite the senses and the imagination. But sadly the admission fees don’t allow for these sorts of quick, spontaneous visits that promote curiosity and ongoing interest.

  9. I’ve always found it odd in London that the museums are free but the major churches charge admission. There’s something very weird about paying over $20 to look inside a place of worship.

    I made the mistake of going to the British Museum on a Saturday, and it was pandemonium. There were people climbing onto 3000 year old statues to have their picture taken, while the overworked guards rushed around trying to stop them. I think that’s a little too much public access: the artifacts need to be preserved for everyone, including future generations, to share, and too much overcrowding prevents anyone from getting much out of the exhibits.

    $5 isn’t bad — though Friday nights at the ROM used to be free. How about $5 (or free) Sundays during the winter? That’s off-season for tourists, so locals would benefit the most.

  10. Dear me, I take everything back about idiot cousins”. They have a free museum. I guess that makes up for everything else.

  11. Everything free would be great, but until then, memberships are ideal for those who like to pop in from time to time. You also get in to some Canadian galleries, like VAG, for free. The higher levels get you reciprocal access to a pretty good list of museums throughout N. America. You also get discounts at the gift shop and local businesses (like Science City). We have a family pass – my kid loves the Discovery area on rainy days and she never gets tired of the dinos.

    As well, most institutions, including ROM and AGO, have a free time. At the ROM, it’s the last hour before closing.

  12. aidan:

    “Dear me, I take everything back about idiot cousins”. They have a free museum. I guess that makes up for everything else.”

    What a typical arrogant leftist Canadian comment. Perhaps you didnt’ notice but over 50% of voting USA didn’t elect their president. You would do well to criticize their govt, not their whole country.

  13. this pricing scheme is new; the ROM used to be free on friday evenings. (or was that program only temporary?)

    anyway it would be of interest to know what the ROM’s admission prices/schedules were like historically for this discussion.

  14. hinley> Aidan wasn’t acting like a leftist (man, you sure do see the world through a particular view), he was seeing it as a typical arrogant Canadian.

    The Detroit Instutute of Art was one american dollar to get into, and it had the 5th biggest collection in the United States. I always felt like I was stealing something when I was in there so cheaply.
    Kneejerk anti-americanism is sort of stupid.

  15. I think that greater access is essential.

    The answer, realistically is to get an endowment fund set up specifically for that purpose.

    Preferably from an existing, already honoured donor so we dont’ have to name anything else after them!

    From my understanding of what ROM pulls in through admissions, an endowment fund of $100,000,000 should suffice to make 1 day a week free, those under 18 free at any time, and still cut regular admission to no more than $10.00

    That’s only 4 major donors based on recent ‘philanthropy’ in our city.

    There’s no reason that money couldn’t be raised. Its just a matter of making it sexy to donor to be associated with that kind of donation.

    I think that’s very achievable.

    Forget naming rights, just think of the positive publicity for such a donation.

    Of course, it would be nice if people donated just out of the goodness of their hearts, over if government was more generous in funding the arts…..

    But however we get there….

  16. Please, back to the architorture! and public space.
    How long will it be before some nasty snow, sleet and ice or icicle forms on one of the east or west faces from some of the irregular and slanted redirections and concentrations of waterflow – and then falls off, perhaps to impale, wound or k.o.?
    Truly there is an issue in terms of those that are behind this, shouldn’t just stand behind it, but underneath it too. One hopes the insurance is kept up, and speaking of upkeep, my guess is about five years before the acid atmosphere of TOronto starts to mars the finish.
    And it will be very nice to regain a fuller use of Bloor St., though fixing the pavement from all the heavy equipment would also be nice – significant gouge out in front of RCM.

  17. Hamish — this isn’t ablout the architecture, or in your bizarre venacular: “architoture.”

    There has been lots of space to write and comment on the architecture, while this one focuses on the idea of public spaces.

    If you can’t handle a conversation veering away from Take the Tooker, West Waterfront LRT or bike lanes please keep it to yourself.

  18. One of my favourite museums I visited was the Getty Center in Los Angeles – free admission to all. Parking was $8, but if you came in by bus (and yes, even in LA, this wasn’t too bad to use). Not only does it have an amazing collection of European art, but the museum is on the side of the Brentwood Hills, and you take an automated tram up the hill to get to it (in itself an interesting and awe-inspiring ride). At the top are the galleries, surrounded by plazas, gardens and spectacular views and interesting architecture, with free booklets explaining it.

    Government mandated museums are public space, even with an admission charge, just as the TTC is public space, despite having to pay a fare to use it. That said, $20 is awfully high and makes it potentially very inaccessible public space. Between last weekend’s free admission and another visit on $5 Friday, I’ve seen everything I wanted to for now, at least, until next year.

  19. I was in the museum last Sunday, for the free admission day. We asked a security guard about the disappearance of free Fridays. His comment was that people don’t value what they don’t pay for.

    I haven’t verified the accuracy of that claim, but it’s certainly telling of our attitudes towards culture. And by our, I mean all of us, not just our government, or our holders of the cultural purse-strings.

    It’s disappointing, frankly, that the museum would find itself unable to maintain a free evening because of the audience, not because of finances.

  20. Responding to Matt L.’s comment:

    It is true that in England religous monuments sometimes charge an admission free whereas in France these are almost always free. This is because the French government picks up the maintenance costs for historical monuments and the UK government does not.

    And extreme example of this is St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. St. Paul’s was built in the 17th century by the national government to be a national cathedral. And always received government assistence in maintenance until Margaret Thatcher cut it off. The St. Paul’s congregation was completely unable to afford to maintain this wonderful building, so the tourists now pay.

    Daily religous services remain free of admission to pilgrims, and the last time I was at evensong they didn’t even pass the plate.

    In comparison, the French government pays almost all the maintenance costs of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.

    Toronto’s religous monuments also receive no government support with the minor exception of the miniscule Clergy Reserve funds and the very rare “one-offs” like some funds for the restoration of St. Anne’s artwork. This is, of course, straightforward religious discrimination, since equivalent secular monuments tend to get substantial government funding. For example, the bells of the Peace Tower in Ottawa were refurbished with government money but the bells of St. James Cathedral in Toronto were not.

  21. “Hamish — this isn’t ablout the architecture, or in your bizarre venacular: “architoture.””
    Then again, there may be some underlying addressing of an elitist-banality corollary btw/reckless architectural hubris and reckless admission-charge hubris.

    Even though I, myself, wouldn’t rank myself among the radically anti-Libeskind, I can, er, grok it…

  22. Kevin Love – “the bells of the Peace Tower in Ottawa were refurbished with government money but the bells of St. James Cathedral in Toronto were not”

    The Peace Tower is part of a government building – who else did you expect to pay for it? What a dumb comparison.

    As for paying for the renewal of religious heritage buildings, I’m game as long as it’s through a National Trust organisation, that contracts are signed to ensure public access at appropriate and convenient times (for both the religious and the visitor) and that should the congregation wish to end the arrangement or sell the building that a portion of the support would be repayable. The same contract could be offered to secular organisations on the same terms – no discrimination!

  23. Further about my earlier comment: think of it like the friendly neighbourhood dive going glam; and the price of everything from bacon’n’eggs to beer shooting up.

    Remember when Moe’s Tavern became “M”? Great draw for the “after Chernobyl, my penis, is falling off” crowd…

  24. The ROM should have one day a week when it’s “pay what you will” like many museums in New York. That way those who can’t afford the steep admission, can still have access to it.

  25. Over here in the UK, there is talk of admission charges at museums:

    “A future Tory government would end the Government’s policy of automatic free entry and allow institutions to levy a charge for admission. The move has angered Labour MPs and some senior figures in the arts world who say it is backward-looking, elitist and philistine.”

  26. Thanks for comments, all.

    Update: Free Fridays and even $5 Fridays are definitely no longer at the ROM. The *final* free Friday was the day of this post, June 8. As of June 15, Friday nights at the ROM are $10 for adults, and the “last hour prior to close is free” rule has been shaved to “last half-hour prior to close is free.”

    Thanks ROM for NOT responding to Toronto’s need for accessibility. Actually, their marketing department is pumping up the library musuem-pass program to be launched this Wednesday. I fear however that if passes are available at libraries (just wait on hold for six weeks! easy!) it’ll give the ROM and others even more “leeway” for their inaccessible pricing schemes.

  27. James – re: $100,000,000 Endowment Fund.

    That money is a conglomeration of many individual funds, and the majority of it has been designated by the donors, in extremely specific ways. For example, the ROM has a six-digit endowment fund specifically for the purchase of paperweights. Seriously. Which means that the money, and revenue generated from investing that money, doesn’t count as real “income” for museum operations (and also explains the paperweight gallery). I’m sure that if all those $$ were available for general and operating applications, then admission fees WOULD be lower, but that’s not how it usually works. Very few people are interested in giving the Museum money to use as the Museum sees fit, and I don’t necessarily blame them.

    I agree wholeheartedly with Mark – I love the museum, and want to support it, and as a result I happily put my money where my mouth is and buy an annual membership. I have the convenience of being able to go whenever the desire strikes, and the Museum has more of a solid foundation to base its future on. I’m not a wealthy person, and was able to afford the fee even when I was a student with little to no income (thanks largely to payment plans!), because it was something important to me. I think the idea of an admission-geared-to-income is reasonable, going forward, I hope they are able to invest in starting something like this.

  28. Hey, so after verifying the changes to the “last hour of the day is free” policy, I’ve been told it’s “last 90 minutes of the day is free” not “last 30 minutes” as was communicated in a prior interview. Sorry about the confusion on that one.

    For the record, I still don’t think that families should have to hang around the ROM ’til 8pm every summer weeknight, or 4:30pm weekends, to get in at an affordable rate. This keeps the ROM’s “free hours” total at 10.5 hours per week, and its “$20” hours total at 59.5. So, still not a good enough solution, equity wise, in my eyes.

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