I wrote the first version of this post in an email to my friend Betsy Rosenwald, who is one of the Communications people at the Mendel Art Gallery. It was written in the context of Saskatoon City Council’s move to get the Mendel to begin charging admission fees. I originally wrote it to provide another data point for the Mendel’s upcoming discussions on admission fees, and to give some perspective from outside the usual field of operations. It turned out a lot longer than I expected.
While I was in Japan (2003-2005) I lived in a Kitakyushu, mid-sized Japanese city. I say mid-sized, but this is in the context of Japan. With a population of just over 1 million people, Kitakyushu ranks as the 13th largest city in the country. It has a public art museum, the Kitakyushu Municipal Museum of Art (English wikipedia entry, Japanese official site) which I’ll hereafter abbreviate as KMMA. I’m not sure where the funding comes from but I believe the city pays for it. There are many parallels between the KMMA and the Mendel Art Gallery. Among them are the fact that they are both municipal, they are located in small cities fairly distant from the main hubs of cultural activity, and they are on picture-postcard sites. But I don’t intend to make comparisons beyond this. I simply want to write about my experience in Japan.
I don’t know much about the history of the museum, but it appears to have been built in the 60s, and there was a great deal of collecting of western artists up until the bubble burst in the 80s. At one point someone invited Frank Stella to do a residency at the city’s steel mills. The KMMA permanent collection, in addition to holding Japanese contemporary art and ukiyo-e (traditional woodblock prints) includes some big names of the painting scene of the 1980s: David Salle, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Enzo Cucchi, Francisco Clemente. There are many others, but these are the names I remember because that’s what I was interested in at the time, and it was surprise to encounter work by the artists I’ve name-dropped. A look at the KMMA’s collection page—it shows major works: the top section is Japanese artists, and the bottom is foreign artists—tells me the museum also owns a piece each by a couple of the other Italian Trans-Avantgardists, plus Schnabel, Serra, Yayoi Kusama, among others. The gallery also owns an assortment of minor paintings by impressionist and post-impressionist masters. Plus a full set of Picasso’s Vollard Suite, and the Miserere series of prints by Rouault.
The gallery has two locations: a crown jewel of modernist Japanese architecture situated at the top of hill (small mountain, elevation probably around 200m) in one of the many green spaces of the city. The second location is in a huge post-modern shopping mall-cum-multi-purpose building called Riverwalk. I’ve written previously about Riverwalk, and if you follow the link you can see what the place looks like. I’ll try to dig out some pictures of the museum itself.
Both locations charge admission:
- The main gallery on the hill charges somewhere around ¥100-200 for access to the permanent collection. This is a token amount—between C$1.15-2.50, depending on the exchange rate—and is less than the bus fare it costs to get to the museum. They sometimes have special exhibitions for which separate admission charges apply. I don’t recall these additional charges being exorbitant, probably no more than ¥900, and usually more like ¥300-400. Exhibitions at this gallery included work from permanent collection—every time I visited, the exhibition was the same—and various exhibitions of what we generally call “contemporary art”: painting, sculpture, drawing, installation, video, etc. There is also a gallery available to the general public for displays of work by local artists. Much of this work was of a skilled amateur level.
- The satellite gallery at Riverwalk has a slightly different focus. It is located in a high-traffic area in the downtown core. I suspect that for many visitors, the Riverwalk gallery is the Kitakyushu Municipal Museum of Art, and that few of its visitors have set foot in the main museum. This venue mostly programs touring exhibitions, and many of the shows come from other institutions or have been assembled by outside curators. The programming is definitely more populist than the main gallery. The kinds of shows I saw there covered a vast range of themes. Among the shows I saw there: medical illustrations from historical Asian sources; the robot as a subject of pop culture; vintage Japanese automata and toys; shoe designs by Jan Jansen (I may have misspelled his name); a show of the full sets of the above-noted Picasso and Rouault print series. In all cases with these shows there was a definite sense of serious curatorial intent. They were professional exhibitions in every way that I, as a barely-literate non-native speaker of Japanese could tell. Because of my language limitations, I couldn’t make sense of the many of the Japanese-only info panels but the overall presentation was as professional as you’d expect from any contemporary museum or gallery, and sometimes better than what I’ve seen in other world-class institutions. Admission to these shows was much more expensive than to the main gallery. My memory tells me that admission ranged from ¥500-¥1200 (roughly C$6-14).
In general, the main gallery was pretty empty—though that might have been my timing—and the Riverwalk gallery was almost always busy.
What I found striking about this situation was that the gallery—and here I’m talking about both sites as a single institution—had a nice balance between so-called “academic” exhibitions which have a fairly narrowly-defined specialist audience, and ones that were more popular or populist. The organization seems to have embraced a broader definition of “art” than what we often think of, one that includes pop culture, fashion, cultural history, and other areas. There didn’t seem to be any compromise in the quality of the work or exhibitions.
In terms of promotion, the galleries always printed full-colour A4 (near letter-size) handbills/posters/flyers. There was usually a picture and basic info on the front in full colour, and the back was printed in a single colour with details about the show: date & times, admission, some text about the show, and maps of how to get to the venue. There was often a coupon for ¥100-200 off the admission charge if you brought the flyer with you. Further perusal of the KMMA website tells me that there was also often a discount for advance purchase of tickets.
Admission charges were tiered: elementary- and middle- school students; high-school students; adults. The first time we went to the Riverwalk gallery they asked us if we lived in town. We did, so they asked us if our son went to a local elementary school. He did, so they gave us a card good for free admission. They told us to keep this free pass and bring it with us whenever we came to the gallery. So, our son got in free but we had to pay full price for ourselves, less the flyer discount if we remembered. I can’t remember an exhibition where we felt the admission charges were unjustified. Exhibitions were professional and interesting—even when we couldn’t read the didactics—and substantial enough that they were worth the price of admission. There were shows I would have gone to a second time if they had been less expensive but that has more to do with my own frugality than anything else. I suspect as well that the gallery has a membership system.
I’ll sum up my observations of the KMMA’s admission charges. The permanent collection was available at the somewhat remote but picturesque main gallery for a token amount. Whether it was ¥100 or ¥200 this was still less than one-way bus fare to the gallery. Exhibitions that took more work—curatorial, logistic, etc—cost more to get into. But the prices were reasonable enough that I felt they were good value for money. And local schoolchildren got in for free.
While I was in Kitakyushu I met a curator from the KMMA. He told me that they only have 2 full time curators at the main gallery—which is somewhere between the size of the Mendel and the Mackenzie (possibly a bit bigger than the Mackenzie)—and a few part-time and contract curatorial staff at the Riverwalk gallery, which I’d guess has about as much gallery space as the Mendel.
I could probably contrast this with my limited experience of museums, galleries, and tourist traps in England, but I’m sure there are people in the community who have more information than what I gleaned from the 5 days I spent in London. For most of my year in England I lived in the southwest—in South Devon, a 3.5-hour train trip from London—and spent more time making and writing about art than trying to keep up with the art scene.