Marc Mayer: The National Gallery and Taxpayers’ Money
Last week, National Gallery of Canada director Marc Mayer gave free public talks in Toronto and Winnipeg on an often-controversial topic in the arts: taxpayers’ money. In it, Mayer discussed misconceptions that the general public and art insiders alike often have about art, artists, art museums and the art economy. He also spoke about his wish to make art more accessible to all Canadians. Here, in this condensed follow-up phone interview, Mayer talks with Leah Sandals about the gallery’s budget (slated this year at approximately $58 million), where it comes from, and what he’s planning on doing with it in the future.
Leah Sandals: In your talk, you noted that Canadian taxpayers provide 85% of National Gallery of Canada’s funding. You also said that you would like the gallery’s permanent collection to be free for taxpayers to see, just like collections are in public museums abroad that have similar funding arrangements, like the Smithsonian and Tate. How are you going to make this free permanent-collection access happen at the NGC?
Marc Mayer: Well, it’s complicated, and we’re trying to figure it out. We’re actually trying to find someone to sponsor it. We think that makes more sense, that someone should take credit for that kind of generosity. And there are various sponsorship options, so that’s really what we’re looking at, because it’s a considerable amount of lost revenue. We think, of course, that [over the long term] there would be a gain in revenue, because more people would come to the gallery—but not in the first couple of years; it takes a while for people to get used to the idea that the permanent collection is free and that they can come anytime.
LS: The latest quarterly figures the gallery has posted online indicate that admission fees only account for a small portion of total revenues—2.2%—with much of that figure coming from tickets to special exhibitions rather than tickets to the permanent collection. So what are the obstacles, then, to restoring free permanent-collection admission?
MM: 2.2% is a lot of money on 58 million dollars. And we can’t afford to lose any money. So the main obstacle is the money. But we’re also part of a network of national museums; would our decision force them to [do something similar]? What is the ministry’s position on this? All those issues, we haven’t figured them out yet. But I do feel strongly that Canadians should have access without barriers as much as possible to the national collection, particularly those who bothered to come all the way out to Ottawa. So that’s what we’re trying to figure out.
LS: On a different financial note, the gallery has recently touted high-profile acquisitions of works by non-Canadian artists like Roxy Paine, Sarah Sze and Jonathan Monk, whose neon piece Tax Payers Money is a new acquisition that you mentioned in your talk. The gallery has also been featuring special exhibitions on huge European names like Caravaggio and Van Gogh. While that’s all very impressive, some might wonder, looking at this state of affairs, what the gallery’s budget has done for Canadian artists lately. What would you say to that?
MM: We’re the single largest investor in Canadian art—we buy more Canadian art than any other individual or institution, period. We’ve just started this new biennial of our acquisitions of Canadian art with a publication and advertising campaign. We’re doing solo exhibitions: We’ve got a David Askevold show that we’ve taken from the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, and, because we’re taking it, we made the exhibition possible. We did the Wanda Koop survey just before that. We’re definitely doing our bit, and probably more than we have in the past, in fact.
LS: Many cultural observers took issue with the new biennial being an acquisitions-based show. So what is the future of the biennial concept at the National Gallery? What form will the 2012 edition take?
MM: The 2012 biennial will be acquisitions from the last two years—exactly what the first one was. I’m not really interested in those [anti-acquisitions-biennial] opinions. It’s an extremely useful exercise to go through and document what we’re actually buying. In the past, we used to buy things and maybe show them, or maybe not, and put them in storage. If we did a group show about work from that period in a few years, then maybe we’d show them. This way, we’re actually celebrating contemporary Canadian art right now and celebrating our acquisitions of it and what we’re preserving for the future. So I didn’t really take that criticism seriously. I actually think it’s something that’s got legs, particularly given the fact that it’s unique in the world as an acquisitions-based biennial.
LS: And how do you feel about the fact that MASS MoCA is going to do a massive show of Canadian art next year of the type that some people say the National Gallery should be doing?
MM: That’s an American perspective on Canadian art, it’s wonderful to see Canadian art abroad, and we’re not in competition with them at all. Frankly, I don’t care what people say about whether that should be a show that the National Gallery should do. The National Gallery needs to promote its collection and its collecting activities in Canadian art. It needs to encourage Canadians to buy Canadian art, and [with the biennial catalogue and exhibition] we’re doing that by showing people who the artists are we think you should be investing in. We’re also letting Canadian taxpayers know what we’re actually acquiring with their taxes, and that these things are extraordinary, they’re from all over the country, from very different kinds of practices, and so on. So really, there’s no competition there. I’m very enthusiastic about MASS MoCA doing a big Canadian show, but I don’t think that means we need to cast aspersions on what the National Gallery is doing. That just doesn’t make any sense.
LS: A big expense for the NGC this year must have been the Venice Biennale. What is the future commitment of the National Gallery to the Canada Pavilion given that a lot of extraneous fundraising was needed in order to execute the Pavilion this year?
MM: Well, we’ll continue with that extraneous fundraising if we’re able to secure permanent responsibility for the Canadian Pavilion. That [securing] hasn’t been done yet—we’re still working on that, and we’ve got to file reports on the project [with various offices at the Ministry of Heritage, the Treasury Board, and elsewhere before that is decided]. Financially, the project is a huge burden; I think we want to find another way to raise the money annually. Perhaps we can think about working on an endowment or some other scheme. But the vast majority of the money for this year’s Canada Pavilion was raised privately—certainly our contribution was. And that takes a lot of work, but the good news is that there is private funding for contemporary Canadian art being presented abroad, so that was very encouraging to us. A lot of very passionate philanthropists really do care that Canada is at the Venice Biennale, and they care that it’s done properly and that we look good. So that was very encouraging for us and for that show, and certainly for Steven Shearer.
LS: And how do you respond to concerns in the cultural community that the National Gallery’s re-involvement in the Pavilion will result in an erasure of regional insights, since the Pavilion’s responsibilities previously rotated between different regional Canadian art institutions?
MM: I don’t think that [phenomenon of regional erasure] is true. We’re extremely sensitive to regional [concerns]. You know, we’re the most decentralized country I know of. And we’re a national institution that, although we’re based in Ottawa, is extremely sensitive to that aspect of Canadian culture. We’ve been sensitive to it for decades. So I’m not really worried about any erasure—certainly not the erasure of history. We’re extremely careful and very conscientious about history and about Canadian art history. But [the system for organizing the Pavilion] was broken and it needed to be fixed, and we have what we think is the better idea. And we haven’t seen a better idea than the one we’ve proposed.
LS: From what you said in your talk, I know you have high expectations for the National Gallery in terms of collections, exhibitions and outreach. But it must be a challenge to achieve those goals given that 5 curators were cut this year, including curator of modern Canadian art, and that last year the gallery dismissed 27 employees, many of whom worked in outreach and education. How will the gallery be able to reach its goals with that lack of staff?
MM: Well, you have to operate with the means at your disposal. So we’re working as hard and as seriously as we can with the means at our disposal. My job and the job of people who do development work at the gallery is to try and get more money so we can afford to pay the salaries of more people. We’re working on named chairs of art so that the salaries are protected by endowments—that would be a huge burden off the budget. One day we’ll have a named chair of Canadian art at the National Gallery of Canada. We’re going to be hiring again for a position in the department of Canadian art and we are doing what we can to make sure that we have a full complement of staff. But, of course, you can’t hire someone you can’t afford to pay—it is just that simple. It’s rough all over, by the way. It’s very, very hard in museums all over the world, and I think that we’re coming out not bad. We still have more curators at the National Gallery than any other museum in the country, so it’s not a disastrous situation. It’s not great, but those layoffs were necessary for financial reasons.
LS: How anxious are you about funding remaining stable from the federal government with the recession still very much in effect worldwide?
MM: Well, any loss of funding makes you anxious. I’m actually more anxious about the loss of attendance from tourism. That earned income is also a very important part of our budget and, we’re hoping, is an important part of our future. Yet there are fewer and fewer people coming to Ottawa, whether they be Canadians or Americans. Americans are really thin on the ground in Ottawa, and so that concerns me very much. But you know, the government is balancing its own budget, we’re part of it, I respect the process, I completely understand it and that’s pretty much all I have to say about it.
LS: Last question: In your talk you discussed misconceptions that many Canadian taxpayers may have about art museums and the art world in general…
MM: But I also talked about the misconceptions that the Canadian art world and the art world in general has about the art economy. That was really a big point of my talk, that everybody’s talking nonsense—I hear silly stuff and urban myths from insiders as well. I just think we need to have better information about how the art world works and to stop pretending that it’s mysterious. It’s actually not so mysterious. That really was the point of my talk.
LS: I appreciate you clarifying that, but I'm also interested in the misconceptions you think people in the art realm and in art museums have about the taxpaying public. What might those be?
MM: You know, [we need to realize that] it hasn’t really been clearly stated why the taxpayer has a responsibility to directly support the production of Canadian culture. We have to make a more articulate and more convincing reason, so that more taxpayers realize that, look, this is not a waste of money; it’s not a lot of money; and I’m cool with it. I also think that all of us who are really passionate and care about the visual arts in our society need to speak plainly about these things—a lot of the people who are passionate about art don’t!
But [in terms of what some people in the art world might expect from taxpayers] the idea that our society owes every artist in Canada a living is, I think, false. It’s not something that’s sustainable and we have to be realistic about that. Another point I made [in the talk] is that artists are self-identified and self-accredited, and that’s not typical of any profession. Just because you’re ardently in love with the idea of being a professional artist doesn’t necessarily mean you get to be a professional artist. I hear this argument from many quarters: that because I was born this way, I have to make art, I can’t help myself, and you guys have to pay. Well, that’s not how it works.