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Art in a Material World: No Pop in This Life.

July 2011

Leap Of Faith. Courtesy of Andrew King.

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.


  • Von Allan said:

    Mike, you noted the following:

    “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.”

    Are we sure they have been declining over X number of months/years? See, I find these types of discussions difficult without any hard data. I have no idea what the attendance trends have been at the NGC, OLT, and whatnot. And these trends would have to be over a number of years and preferably over a number of decades. And, of course, correlated with pricing for non-free programming.

    That last point is especially relevant if ticket prices have been increasing more than inflation. Real wages (i.e.: wages adjusted for inflation) have been stagnant for 30 years or so (see, for example, Flat real wages means that discretionary purchases will be even more discretionary. This could explain a lot. I’m speculating here, of course, but I’d love to see if there’s any correlation. Content could be appealing to the public, but if the ticket prices are out whack with personal expectations than it doesn’t matter. People can’t afford to go.

    Pop Life, for example, was $15.00 per adult ( If you work a minimum wage job here in Ontario ($10.25 per hour) for, say, 36 hours per week, then the ticket price represents 4% of your weekly income ($15/$369). That’s a LOT, especially if you have no idea if you’ll enjoy the show. Hell, why not just skip it and do something else you know that you will enjoy instead?

  • MLevin (author) said:

    Von. You think too much. Or maybe I don’t think enough. Either way, the research and analysis – this hard data – you’ve outlined is far beyond my capacity. That’s Hill Strategies job, except that the most recent report it offers on gallery attendance is for 2005, which says a ton about arts funding, doesn’t it. The numbers that Bosschaart supplied showed attendance declines t the NGC for four straight years, and this will likely continue he says. My network across the country says this is common among all galleries and other venues. Lots of reasons ranging from time to fear, and the outcomes are becoming sadly consistent. This jives with your last, and my only point: that the arts value-for-money proposition is less and less supported in our culture. And that’s a big problem regardless of how much it has to do with the quality of content. There’s so much art I’d like to consume but can’t because of the cost (although I made the mistake of paying $15 to see Pop Life….pweeew, what a dog that was. Mike

  • Von Allan said:

    I do think too much. What can I say? I likey the data, me!

    Seriously, though, four years is not enough. We need the long view and not the short view to come to any firm conclusions. All the four years tells us is that during a severe global recession gallery/venue attendance is down. I would have been stunned if that wasn’t the case. Perhaps a better question might be that given this downturn, what are galleries/venues doing to try and make themselves relevant to people who are cash-strapped? Or are they just maintaining the status quo when it comes to pricing?

    Let me put this in a different context. This September, DC Comics is rebooting their entire line of comics. All current titles are ending in August and everything will start again at issue number one ( There will be 52 (!) new number ones coming through the course of that month. I am sure they will get a short-term boost in sales. There will be a lot of media attention and fan interest, especially since titles like Action Comics and Detective Comics haven’t had a new issue number one since the mid-to-late 1930s.

    Long-term, though? I doubt it will work. And here’s my short answer on why (the long answer is something I’m working on which takes inflation into account):

    50 years ago, in September 1961, DC published 22 titles (,_September, including some superhero titles from Archie Comics). Each issue was priced at 10 cents. The US Federal Minimum Wage in 1961 was $1.15/hour ( Figuring a 36 hour work week, that would be $41.40 or roughly $165.60 per month. If you were a diehard DC fan and bought ALL 22 titles, you would have used 1.33% of your monthly income to do it ($2.20/$165.40).

    Today, the US Federal Minimum Wage is $7.25/hour. $261.00 for a 36 hour work week or approximately $1,044.00 per month. If DC launches all 52 comics at a $2.99 cover price (and we’ll see if that happens), it would cost $155.48. Or 14.89% of your monthly income. Say you only bought 22 comics, equal to 1961. That would cost $65.78 or 6.30% of your monthly income.

    1.33% of your monthly income versus 6.30%. Uh, that’s insane. And none of this is adjusting for inflation. Who working at Walmart or McDonald’s or whatever minimum wage service job can afford that, let alone 14.89% of their income if they want to buy everything? Comics used to be an impulse buy and now they’re not. This is why. Yes, they’re printed on better paper with snazzy computer colouring. It doesn’t matter. Regular people cannot afford them the way they once could. In other words, comics have become elitist price-wise and I don’t think anyone’s noticed. The greatest marketing plans in the world can’t balance that.

    In terms of the NGC and flat real wages, I’m really curious about someone who is barely getting by thinks about the NGC’s various purchases. For example, the $662,500 the NGC and the Canadian Heritage Program spent on George Paulding Farnham’s Ptarmigan Vase. I’m not saying that they shouldn’t be making this type of investment. Perhaps they should be. But they shouldn’t be surprised if people don’t come out to see it.

  • MLevin (author) said:

    “Perhaps a better question might be that given this downturn, what are galleries/venues doing to try and make themselves relevant to people who are cash-strapped?”

    This is exactly the macro question I’m asking. I can’t see this as a question of micro-economics or micro decisions. Too many externalities. I’d lose attention myself, let alone that of the people who read UnFolding. I also think four years is an ample survey to draw conclusions about what’s happening in the arts. A four year span represents a complete change in political philosophy/power, a 40% turnover in artists and a lifetime in culture. This really is about generalizations – Mea Culpa – and what they indicate about the future.

    A more in-depth examination would alienate all but a few. Hey, my attention span is norming. What did you say your name was?

  • Von Allan said:

    What I’m interested is whether this 4 year downturn is part of a larger cycle or not. If it’s the former, then we are talking systemic problems. If it’s the latter, then recovery should happen (all things being equal) as the economy recovers. I’d be curious to see if similar declines have happened in other recessions and if they’re have been recoveries in boom times. That’s why I think the long view is relevant.

    Everyone is voting with their wallets. In other words, I think David Bosschaart is nuts. And it’s not just about doing boring, obtuse shows. It’s about doing boring, obtuse shows that few people can afford. But if the shows were exciting and interesting but still expensive people wouldn’t go. They need to figure out how to innovate and be exciting and be cheap, too.

    Wait…y’know what’s better than cheap? Free. Compare the data you put up in the main post with this from the Smithsonian in 2009: Hmmm…

    Wait, wait. The National Gallery of Canada only started charging in July, 2004 ( See, we need to know what the attendance figures were BEFORE that and then after to really evaluate them. The last four years may simply be part of an ongoing decline since 2004 due to when they started charging admission.

  • MLevin (author) said:

    Been dropping since 04 (the most recent stats I can find) with an upward spike in 08 for Ottawa attendance. But let’s call a spade a spade: $15 is not too much for 95% of Ottawa adults to pay if they see value. That value is validated outside the Gallery.

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