Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Make Museums Free: What we can learn from Britain and Washington

Dan Kitwood / Getty Images

Dan Kitwood / Getty Images

London's National Gallery

  • After two or three centuries in business, public museums have developed into one of the splendours of democracy, the only places where private taste meets elite scholarship and we all pursue our own passions at our own pace. It’s an arena of opinion that permits individualism and innovation to come magnificently alive.

    Just one thing is wrong: Going to a museum in Canada costs money. Unlike parks, libraries and cathedrals, museums have box offices. If two adults take three teenagers to the National Gallery in Ottawa, they pay $18. That’s to enter a building that their taxes built, to see art that they, being citizens, own. The Vancouver Art Gallery, which charges $17.50 for an individual ticket, offers a family rate (maximum two adults and four children) for $50, plus tax. Paddy Johnson, a Canadian curator who runs an art blog from Brooklyn, recently wrote: “I’ve never thought the public should be charged to see their own belongings.”

    That’s also the British view. In Britain most of the national museums are entirely free, most of the time. In Washington the array of museums run by the Smithsonian Institution on the Mall proudly advertises “admission always free.”

    Unfortunately, while charging money at the door supports the running of a museum, it also strengthens the wretched idea that the arts and sciences are the business of a few specialists and the well-to-do. Although many museums have free days or free hours, the existence of a regular ticket price sets the tone. It especially discourages those who find museums a shade intimidating.

    Professionals in the field know all this and often contemplate how they might arrange for their institutions to follow the London and Washington examples.  Accomplishing that change would almost certainly involve expanded government grants, a subject that’s close to unspeakable in this bleak fiscal era.

    Even so, two recent changes in the admission fees of Toronto museums suggests that we may be edging slowly toward the ideal of free museums. With enough backers it could become reality when, once again, the good times roll.

    On Oct. 27 the Royal Ontario Museum lowered its price for a single adult visit from $24 to $15, a reduction of more than a third, the largest such cut in the price of any major museum in my memory. The rate for children (14 and under) has come down from $16 to $12. That’s a timely change as we approach the holidays, when grandchildren traditionally require that their grandparents show them a few dinosaurs, which fortunately the ROM has in spades.

    Meanwhile the Power Plant, the modern art museum on the Toronto waterfront, has announced it will celebrate its 25th year with an “all year, all free” policy, to begin March 23. The Hal Jackman Foundation has provided a grant that will cover the lost revenue.

    Making museum admissions free is one way to help everyone feel more comfortable with art. People who work or live near Trafalgar Square in London know that they don’t need to visit the National Gallery only on special, planned-for occasions. They can, if they wish, drop in for 20 minutes between appointments and see what their favourite Velazquez or Holbein says to them that day.

    That encourages serendipity, a term Horace Walpole coined in 1754 to describe happy discoveries made by accident. The word remained rare for a couple of centuries until improved education and relatively cheap travel made serendipity a more frequent event in many lives.

    It happens in museums when you abandon all sense of purpose and stroll, in the style of what the French call a flâneur, until something you didn’t expect asserts itself, preferably an artist or an idea you’ve never read or heard about. Then you forget about “art appreciation” and just appreciate art.

    It’s a style that allows for whims and sudden changes of plan. It requires openness, a kind of alert browsing. One of the occasions it occurred in my life was in Italy, in the days when Canadian currency made European travel cheap. Exhibitions in Italy were more or less free for those bearing dollars.

    One day in Venice I read, on the gorgeous pink marble facade of the Palace of the Doges, a sign, “Mostra Lorenzo Lotto.” I didn’t know who this guy Lotto was and didn’t even know that “mostra” was Italian for exhibition.

    But I went in, at a cost of about 60 cents, and found myself absorbing the first one-man show in Lotto’s long posthumous career. In the Renaissance there were no retrospectives of artists and no museums either. Lotto was mostly forgotten after his death until Bernard Berenson, prince of art scholars, rediscovered him late in the 19th century. Berenson’s work stimulated half a century of scholarship and the Venice show made the rebirth of his reputation official just before I arrived.

    His favourite religious subject (St. Jerome in the wilderness), his unique design element (Oriental rugs) and his powerful, searching portraits all made fresh sense to me. An hour or so later I walked out with a new artist permanently installed in my head, never to be displaced.

    In Washington, cruising the museums on the Mall, I sense something like this happening all around me. People can combine a long visit to the National Gallery of Art with a shorter excursion to the Museum of African Art, or vice verse. They may want to see both the National Museum of the American Indian and the Air and Space Museum. This is a place where there’s an epiphany waiting around every corner for the receptive visitor.

    Some of the people who crowd the free museums in Washington are tourists who may have heard about the Mall but can hardly believe that this museum heaven exists on earth and that they’re visiting it. Others are scholars or artists with highly specialized interests, or some of the vast army of bureaucrats from the buildings nearby, people who have realized that this place is one of the major perks in their lives.

    They look unusually happy. They chatter with animation and they seem entirely at home in the presence of some of the greatest art on the planet. They’re so relaxed that they seem to be acting as if they own the place, which in fact they do.

    Wednesday: Melissa Leong on what museums across the country are doing to engage and entice visitors

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