Art in a Material World: No Pop in This Life.
By Mike Levin
In May I posted a piece wondering why the National Gallery of Canada’s (NGC) attendance statistics for 2010 didn’t put it in the top 100 galleries around the world. A gallery spokeswoman told me that if the numbers included travelling shows, the count would have been about 695,000 (and 73rd spot on the list).
Last week I got a couple notes from David Bosschaart, president of the Gallery’s union, putting 2010 attendance at about 568,000 (338,000 in Ottawa). He told me this because he felt that diminished government funding to the NGC – from $56 million to $50 million and especially affecting education programs – was causing the problem.
“We feel strongly that this is a direct result of the cuts to the operations budget made by the federal government and the decisions made by NGC management to cut services to the public. We are very concerned about the cuts to public programs because it brings the quality of the experience down a notch.”
My cynicism told me immediately that he was more concerned about protecting the jobs of his 195 members, from conservationists to maintenance people, because the problem is not with numbers but with content.
I’ve asked art fans for years what they think of Ottawa’s national institutions, and a common response is that the shows at the NGC are boring. (Unfortunately I’ve heard similar things about the NAC, which is in huge, if not desperate, financial trouble.) Attendance at the NGC in the past three years has dropped 16.5 percent (2008), 11.3 percent (2009) and 9.6 percent (2010).
This isn’t about funding; it is about people voting with their wallets. As well, the NGC’s travelling shows throughout the country have attracted 50-percent fewer people during the same time frame.
One example is last summer’s blockbuster show Pop Life: Art in a Material World. It drew only 67,000 in 100 days, even though Ottawa was North America’s lone performance. It would be easy to blame the recession and those pesky, nouveau-poor Americans. Except that the same show spent 100 days at London’s Tate Modern and drew only 193,000 people.
Oh, did I mention that admission to the Tate is free?
The only honest conclusion is that this programming was bad. People weren’t interested, and sure as heck weren’t going to pay to see it. In contrast, check out the Ottawa Little Theatre. It may be the fast food of local performance, but it has consistently large and loyal audiences.
What’s even more depressing is that this is happening all over the country. Content is not appealing to the public. Nor is it being delivered by people who think their customers are as important as their own academic degrees. Something is missing.
Artist Bruce Stewart told me one of his painting teachers said he felt Bruce looked at art like artists look at war: emotionally, with an inability to look away. Maybe this is why our current government is more willing to wage war than to wage creativity. Current arts cuts are, after all, just the Prime Minister and his advisers reacting to the spending habits of taxpayers.
I can’t agree with union leader Bosschaart when he says staff reductions from funding cuts are the main cause of attendance sag at the NGC. But when he cautions “In order to remain vital as an institution we need to be able to offer the public something of interest, something to bring them in the door,” he couldn’t have used a straighter arrow.