When I read the headline “Saskatoon art gallery trims millions from 2015-16 operating budgets,” my first thought was: “You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.”
Up front, I am not opposed to an admission fee for the new art gallery. It is either some user-pay arrangement or an even larger property tax hike for everyone else. What I do take issue with is the amount of admission and the rationale used to support it.
Did we build this art gallery for the benefit of the residents of Saskatoon, or as a tourist attraction? In the report submitted to council by the CEO of the gallery, it is stated that we have to have an admission fee because national or international tour operators will not organize tours to free facilities as it would affect their bottom line. There is an easy solution to this — residents enter free or at a reduced rate and non-residents or tourists pay big bucks. Besides, wasn’t it the Picasso collection that was going to have people flocking here from around the world?
It was also suggested that charging a hefty admission fee ($10 for students/seniors, $12 for all others) will encourage the locals to buy memberships rather than pay an entry fee on each visit. Currently the Mendel membership costs are $20 for seniors, $35 for individuals and $50 for a family unit of up to seven people, two of whom are adults. Members got a few perks like a discount at the gift shop, advance notice of upcoming exhibitions, 12 free cards a year and a reduced admission at affiliated galleries in Canada.
The new gallery proposes memberships at $65 per person and $90 for a couple with no mention of a family rate. Even if you buy a membership, you will still pay admission of $16 per person, or $14 for students and seniors, for special exhibits. And anyone who believes that students and the majority of Saskatoon’s seniors, many of whom are on fixed incomes, will spend $10 to $14 for admission to this gallery is just plain nuts. However, “if” the marketing committee is successful in securing sponsorships, it might be able to provide free admission for children under 13 and/or for an evening opening to the public at no cost. (Interestingly enough, most public galleries in Canada do offer an afternoon and/or evening opening to the public free of charge.)
Mayor Don Atchison seems dumbfounded by the public’s reaction to the admission fees, as he thinks this matter was dealt with when the gallery was being planned. Perhaps he is becoming a little forgetful in his old age. During the planning stage a survey was conducted gauging the public’s appetite for admission fees. More than 65 per cent said “no” to fees and at that time council did a political two-step and implied it would try to avoid such charges, although most people were skeptical.
I was taken aback by Coun. Charlie Clark’s position on the hours of operation — which was supported by Coun. Darren Hill. Clark said he didn’t think it is council’s job to determine what times the gallery ought to be open. Excuse me, but if it’s council’s job to spend tens of millions of taxpayer dollars on construction, millions of dollars on the annual operating costs of this gallery and the City owns the facility, then council should be in a position to decide on the public’s right of access to a facility they own and are paying for.
It is tremendously annoying to hear the gallery gurus price-compare our “world-class” facility to other such galleries in Canada. These other galleries are situated in cities with populations nearing or well above a million people and with sufficient wealth to pay the freight. We are a relatively small prairie city of 250,000 without the economy of scale enjoyed by Winnipeg, Vancouver, Toronto or the like. But local donors and supporters are expecting a bang for their buck and this gallery is to be the face of the “new” Saskatoon.
As for the numbers game, I can’t figure out how this gallery will enjoy 220,000 visitors, but only 13.6 per cent, roughly 30,000 people, will be paying admission fees. Do 190,000 visitors get in free or do they really expect two-thirds of the city’s population will be buying a form of membership?
According to the last available published financial statements of the Mendel Art Gallery (2013), the City’s grant was $2.6 million, covering 71 per cent of the operating cost. According to current information, the City’s grant will be $3.6 million in 2015. But the Mendel will only be open for five months this year. I assume by now staff are already crating the 7,700 works of art in its collection for storage and that task should be completed around the closure date of June 2015. Recognizing that the CEO and a handful of administrative staff will remain on the payroll preparing for the transition, why does the Mendel/Remai need an increase of a million dollars or more in operating grants for 2015 when they are only open for less than half a year? If, by example, it relates to the cost of storing art, leave the art where it is or charge a new tenant sufficient rent to cover off the expense.
And why, when the new gallery is only to be open for four months (or less) in 2016, do they need a $5-million grant from the City? Yes, you have four months of operating costs on a space five times the size of the Mendel and 10 to 13 additional full-time equivalent staff over and above the existing employees, but you also have the extra revenue supposedly coming from admission fees, memberships, gift shop and restaurant revenues, rentals, fundraising and whatever else enters the fray.
The report states that by 2019 the gallery will regenerate sufficient revenue to cover 42 per cent of its operating costs, leaving taxpayers to pay the balance of 58 per cent. In 2013, the City’s grant to the Mendel was 71 per cent, which translated into $2.6 million. What does 58 per cent of the new gallery costs translate into in terms of dollars? If the new facility needs $5 million for, being generous, less than one half of the year, does that mean 58 per cent of $10 million, or $6 million? And what will the City’s operating contributions be for 2017 and 2018, while the powers that be waltz up to the magical 2019?
All the proposed revenue is based on the optimistic premise that the stars will line up and that everything will go according to plan, which rarely happens. What happens if the projected revenues fall short of the mark? If you guessed that your taxes will offset the shortfall you would right.
I would expect that when the gallery opens in 2016 with much fanfare that there will be decent attendance by a curious public anxious to see our “world-class” facility. But after the initial brouhaha, is it sustainable in the long run?
A founding goal of the Mendel was to champion the art of Saskatchewan and Canadian artists. Many of today’s successful artists, producing art in various genres, got their start at the Mendel. And the Mendel did have international status, enabling it to attract occasional travelling exhibits.
The Remai gallery’s CEO, Gregory Burke, hails from the Power Plant Gallery, a contemporary art gallery in Toronto, which through its history has displayed many controversial contemporary exhibits. Under Burke’s leadership, the new gallery’s vision statement is to develop, collect, present and interpret contemporary art. The mandate is to provide transformative experiences by connecting art with local and global communities. You should expect to see a somewhat different selection of gallery exhibits in the years to come than what was traditionally displayed at the Mendel.
In a nutshell, we have a ritzy art gallery five times the size of the Mendel with higher operating costs and sizeable debt, reduced public access and substantial user fees. If art is food for the soul, I regret to say many Saskatoon souls will go hungry in the future. I won’t call the gallery a white elephant because white elephants are rare, and in this City extravagant spending is no longer rare.
But it is what it is. With this writing I bid adieu to the Mendel Art Gallery. I will miss everything the Mendel represented about Saskatoon and Saskatchewan. I will remember fondly the family times we had at the Mendel when our children were young and we were broke, and especially the visits to the conservatory which I joking called my poor man’s winter vacation spot. And I rue the fact that many of Saskatoon’s marginalized residents will never enjoy the facility that they pay for with their taxes.
Welcome to the new Saskatoon!