How to beat the high cost of culture

How to beat the high cost of culture

Editor's Letter: Sarah Fulford
Christopher Wahl

Last month, I invited my daughter’s friend to join my family on an afternoon trip to the Ontario Science Centre. The kids had a blast, particularly in the amazing hands-on play area KidSpark, designed for the under-eight set. The girls constructed a roof with foam blocks, rocked out to “Shake It Off” on a mini-stage and arranged plastic organs in a faux cadaver. Did they learn any science? I have no idea, but their curiosity was fed, their energy was burned, and they left with the impression that learning can be fun.

When I handed my daughter’s friend back to her parents—a lawyer and an educator—they told me they never take their kids to the Science Centre. “Too expensive,” the girl’s dad said. Admission for two adults and two kids is $70—and that doesn’t include Imax tickets or parking, never mind snacks. These parents are in their early 30s, launching careers after grad school. With daycare costs, rent, student debt payments and a million other expenses, the Science Centre doesn’t fit into their budget.

I don’t mean to single the Science Centre out. Cultural institutions in this city are, for many families, prohibitively expensive. Which is truly a shame, given how interesting and exciting they’ve become. Next month, the AGO is launching a blockbuster exhibit by the 88-year-old artist Yayoi Kusama, a show that is generating massive buzz. For a family of four, admission to that exhibit is $103. The Royal Ontario Museum has finally reopened its stately Queen’s Park doors to the building’s grand 1933 wing. The Weston Entrance, as it’s called, is an elegant, welcome reversal of a host of bad decisions made a decade ago during the ROM’s $300-million ­Libeskind overhaul. But admission is still too high for many: the cost for two adults and two kids is $68.

Some museums have created ways to make their collections more accessible without cutting too deeply into the ticket revenue they rely upon to operate. At the AGO, general admission is free on Wednesday nights. The ROM offered a day of free admission in December to celebrate the opening of its new entranceway. But one of the most creative ways to increase access was first proposed by David Miller 11 years ago, when he was mayor. He approached the Toronto Public Library to suggest that its branches lend out arts passes, the way they lend books.

Photograph by iStock

That’s how MAP—the Museum and Arts Pass program—started, and it’s been hugely popular. To date, the TPL has handed out 750,000 passes, providing admission for families to 17 venues, including the AGO, the ROM, the Science Centre, the Aga Khan Museum and the Toronto Zoo. The demand far exceeds the supply. Every Saturday morning at 9 a.m., at libraries all over the city, there are around-the-block lineups for passes. (The program was in the news late last fall because the TPL needs a new sponsor to keep MAP running after 2018.)

I admire the library’s efforts to make expensive attractions accessible to all, but the MAP program is a band-aid solution to the greater problem of accessibility, and an imperfect one: ideally, our museums would all be free to the public. The British Museum in London is free. So is the ­Smithsonian in D.C. To remove barriers here, we’d need to believe that culture is as vital to our well-being as health care and education. Government, wealthy Torontonians and corporate leaders would all have to pony up. Until then, lineups at libraries will just continue to grow.

Sarah Fulford is the editor of Toronto Life. She can be found on Twitter @sarah_fulford.