Should the public pay to visit museums? It's a question rarely asked in Canada, perhaps because the answer seems obvious. Since we pay for nearly everything else, it's logical that we should hand over $11 (the Vancouver Art Gallery) or $9 (the Edmonton Art Gallery) or $6 (the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa) or $20 (the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto).
But run the argument in the opposite direction. Imagine museums aren't in the same category as movies and plays. Maybe they're more like parks. We visit all the parks in Canadian cities without paying anything (except, of course, our taxes). And consider libraries. We can spend all day reading at the public library without paying anything (again, except taxes).
As citizens, we normally own the objects in museums, and collectively we provide more of the construction money for the buildings than any other source. By visiting Washington, we can find another reason for free admissions: sheer envy. Every one of the huge cluster of terrific museums on the Washington Mall (including the National Gallery of Art) is free. Our notion that Canada is more generous in cultural matters than the U.S. collapses when we spend a day drifting happily in and out of the buildings on the Mall.
In Britain, the National Gallery and the British Museum, as well as most other national museums, are also free. Years ago, when I made some television programs in Trafalgar Square, I popped into the National Gallery a couple of times a day, especially to see my favourite Hans Holbein, The Ambassadors. It was like owning it, at least for five days.
Denmark has the same policy, and lately the French government has said it may move in that direction. Why not Canada? Is our country too poor? Obviously not. Are we more miserly than other countries? Don't think so. Have we never gone out of our way to impress on our politicians that museums are crucial to national well-being?
That sounds more like the explanation. Museum lovers may be too shy. We may also secretly believe that only the prosperous care about museums. Therefore, they can and should pay for the privilege of entering them or become members at reasonable prices (for instance, $200 in Vancouver) and visit whenever they please.
There's evidence that eliminating admission charges expands interest. When a museum temporarily suspends fees, the crowds grow. That's true right now at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, where admission is free (for everything, including seven special exhibitions) until Jan. 27. It's the MMFA's way of reminding the public that the permanent collection has been free since 1995.
At the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, which has only a limited number of galleries on view, the entrance fee is now $15; but it's free this Saturday and Sunday (courtesy of the Westbank Corp.), after which the AGO shuts down to finish the Frank Gehry remake and reinstall the collection. What the fee will be when it reopens next year isn't determined. The AGO people, looking at all options, have discovered that it would cost $7-million a year to eliminate admission charges.
At the Royal Ontario Museum, you could go mad trying to keep up with price changes. Before the construction of Daniel Libeskind's new front wing, the normal price was $15, though for a while it went down to $10 when much of the building closed. Early this year, it went up to $18, but the opening of the Libeskind design raised it to $20. For the last month or so, it's been $15, because there have been no special exhibitions. On Saturday, with the opening of Canada Collects: Treasures from Across the Nation, it goes back up to $20.
The ROM people can explain all this. They calculate what they have to offer and guess what the traffic will bear.
But those who just drop around now and then to see what's available may find air-line-style pricing annoyingly whimsical.
Within most museums, the senior staff usually includes a few people who favour free admission. They have to settle instead for occasional victories. At the National Gallery of Canada, you can see the permanent collection without paying on Thursdays after 5 p.m. The ROM is free for the last hour of every day, 4:30 to 5:30. (Friday nights were free till 2005, when they went up to $10.)
At the Louvre, where admission is normally about $15, it's free on the first Sunday of each month, except for special exhibitions. President Nicolas Sarkozy's party has discussed spending $200-or $300-million a year to eliminate all admission fees at French museums. Christine Albanel, the new culture minister, says she hopes to attract people who now don't use museums. Others think it would simply subsidize tourists, the main museumgoers, without increasing attendance. But in 2001, when the 14 museums run by the city of Paris eliminated admission fees, attendance rose by about 50%. A broader plan will be tried soon in a few national and regional museums.
In New York, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has solved this problem in its own imperial style: by intimidation. Admission is free, sort of, but signs say visitors should give a "suggested donation," a figure recently raised, without much publicity, from$15 to $20.
What if you can afford only $10, or $5, or less? You may discover the ticket clerks are ready to treat perceived cheapskates with the disdain the museum thinks they deserve. When the increase was announced, The New York Times sent a reporter, Randy Kennedy, to find out what "suggested" meant. Is it a gift or a tribute exacted ("a sign of submission," as the dictionaries put it)? Kennedy asked five different cashiers how much he had to pay. He received evasive, grumpy answers and offered 50 cents.
The clerks handled him with "aggressive disregard," a New York technique designed to shame the frugal into handing over more cash. Kennedy wrote of one clerk that "If he had been trained in a psy-ops camp in the most effective ways of wounding a conscience, he could have done no better."
Still, it's not an idea Canadians should try at home. Arrogance works because the Met has the best collection in North America. In Canada, not even the most confident museum could claim to be in that class.