Benefits Beyond Fees
Museums and galleries offer a wide variety of insight into culture, history and community. Public accessibility to these institutions is an important aspect in promoting and maintaining museums.
Being able to explore ancient artefacts and prestigious art helps educate and include the public in the community. Canadian museum institutions offer various means of accessibility for the public because they help create a sense of community within their city. From free admission, admission by donation, or admission fees, museums try and offer their galleries for public viewing.
Greg Gallant is the founder and director of the Prince Edward Island Regiment Museum, a war museum that offers free admission along with a donation box. He says this museum adds “local flavour in our history”. “We may be small,” says Gallant, “But community museums are important because they give the chance to tell the world that our history is just as important as anyone else’s.”
The PEI Regiment Museum is a war museum featuring a large collection of artefacts from the 1970s to the present day. Because the museum is owned by the military, its funding is covered, and because it’s self-guided, there are no other staff members who work there.
Greg Gallant says the museum started in a hall in 1990 and grew to the five room display it is today. It’s located right on the waterfront and is a popular attraction for cruise ship tourists, some of whom are veterans too. “We have a lot of history and veterans who deserve recognition,” says Gallant.
The museum is an extensive collection of PEI’s military culture, where local soldiers are immortalized by name. Even PEI natives who fought at D-Day are remembered. Gallant says the feedback he receives about the museum is very positive, and it helps to educate people, whether they’re tourists, locals or students on field trips. He encourages the youth to come by, because he says they’re the future of this institution.
At the MacKenzie Art Gallery in Saskatchewan, their former suggested donation admission policy is changing. Like the PEI Regiment Museum, the Art Gallery offered admission by donation. Starting June 10, the gallery will begin charging admission for those over the age of 17. Admission will be $10, with a reduced membership program available for $30 per year instead of the usual $55.
Admission is only charged for the second floor of the gallery, with the common area on the first floor remaining open for free.
Deborah Rush, Director of Communication at the gallery, says they had to reassess the institution’s models when planning for their 2023 strategic plan. When planning to add more exhibits, there was a need to add admission fees. The gallery is funded by a variety of sources, including all three levels of government, donations and earned revenue, according to Rush. Money from admission would fall under the latter, as well as money from the gift shop.
Rush says the reactions to the new admission is well received. “I think they recognize that the ability for an organization to continue to give free admission is more challenging than ever before,” she says, “And we hope the reduced membership still allows access to our Gallery.”
This gallery is Saskatchewan’s oldest art gallery and is a space for the community to gather. “We see our place in the community as sort of the custodians of history through art,” Rush says, “But also as a place where you will learn something and be a part of something hopefully transformative every time you come.”
The gallery has a variety of programs, aimed for children, teens, and adults alike. From opportunities to create art, to speakers and different exhibits, the gallery is available for all. The change in fees will help fund more varieties of art at the gallery.
With 440 members already, the decreased membership program should encourage more people to join and be part of the art community. “Our visitor numbers are definitely up this year,” says Rush, “At any given moment we have an excess of 90,000 visitors a year.” One of the challenges Rush says they face is something she calls the “Netflix effect”, where the population doesn’t go out as much. She encourages those to come out to the local gallery.
“[We’re] just trying to find an audience in a very noisy world,” she says, “And kind of disrupting that noise by saying this is a place of calm and we hope you can find some time in your day with art.”
At the Burnaby Village Museum, their admissions changes were the opposite of those at the MacKenzie Art Gallery. Though not as recent, the former went from charging admission to dropping the fees altogether.
Until 2010, the former museum charged admission fees to the public. However, this municipally-run institution saw a change in 2011, after the museum turned 40 years old. The mayor and council at the time decided to offer free admission to celebrate, and it remained free ever since.
“The reason why they wanted it free is because they wanted more people to come and see it,” says Deborah Tuyttens, director of the Burnaby Village Museum in British Colombia.
The museum offers a fully-functioning carousel from 1912, which they charge $2.65 per ride. “Since we’ve gone free our carousel rides have gone way up,” adds Tuyttens, “And we’ve had more public sponsorship from corporations because we have a much greater attendance now.”
According to Tuyttens, most of the museum’s budget comes from the government, as well as their revenue from things like film rentals, school programs, and corporate parties. She also says they’re a very accessible place, which helps bring in the community.
In 2010, the number of people that came through the museum’s gates was 37,000. This does not include the total attendance. In 2018, that number was 140,000. According to Tuyttens, in their first year offering free admission, they were “overrun” and had to change the way they ran the museum due to the increase in volume of attendees.
“When you look at volumes of people,” she adds, “It really changes the dynamic of what you can offer.” Tuyttens says the operating budget gross for the museum is around $3.3m, with approximately $500,000 to $600,000 of their own generated revenue. The satisfaction rate from their surveys remains high, with a 90% happiness rate on site, according to Tuyttens. “That never changed because our quality of product never changed,” she affirms.
The museum hosts a wide variety of people, from children and families to tourists and many local returning visitors. They also work with many local groups, such as the Asian and Indigenous communities. “I mean if everyone could be free it’d be great,” says Tuyttens, “because it just removes that barrier and it becomes way more accessible for other community groups to participate.”
“It’s great to be free but you also have to look at the logistics of that added volume,” Tuyttens adds, “Our maintenance budget has gone way up because things get broken quicker because we have so many people.” Unfortunately, not every institution like this can be free, but Tuyttens says they’re lucky to be municipally run, so funding in that sense, isn’t a big concern.
In Ontario, government funding of museums is shifting as well. At the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa, government funding is about 72% of their operating budget, which dropped from about 90% in 2013. The government is also encouraging an increase in non-government funding.
John Swettenham, Director of Marketing and Media Relations at the Canadian Museum of Nature, introduced an increase in admission price by 50 cents in 2014. At the time, the news made the front page. Despite having an admissions fee, there are also other ways the Museum of Nature provides access. Thursday evenings are always free, not just here, but at most other museums in Ottawa. There is also a family pass for the museum that is available at the local library to be rented out for families using just your library card.
Swettenham says that museums are a huge part of Ottawa. The city is known for its museums as popular tourist destinations. “We really are a museums town,” he adds, “and that reflects in the local community as well. People love us.” Ottawa Tourism has described Ottawa’s attractions as “Canada in one city”. Swettenham says he agrees with this description describing what they offer and how the museums in the city tell Canada’s story. “We like to position ourselves as having Canada’s nature under one roof,” says Swettenham.
In Toronto, the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) is introducing a change in their admissions too. Starting May 25, visitors aged 25 and under get free admission, and their new Annual pass is $35 per year. According to Stephan Jost, AGO’s CEO and Director of the Michael and Sonja Koerner Foundation, the new admission rates will open the Gallery’s doors wider than ever before. “Art is essential, and we’re making it easier for everyone to make it a part of their everyday lives,” Jost says.
Changes in admissions vary on the way the museum is funded. These changes try to balance operating costs of the institution with accessibility to the public. The goal of any museum is to educate and broadcast the art, culture, history, and artefacts they hold. These institutions thrive by showing off their exhibits and galleries to the public, which in turn should be taken advantage of. M
Lea Batara is a Carleton University journalism student. She contributed to Muse through Carleton’s internship program.
This museological report has been made possible through funding from the Government of Canada. This report was also published in Muse Magazine, July/August issue, 2019.