Gallery Admission Fees Part 3: View from the Soapbox

This is my third post prompted by the impeding debate about admission fees to Saskatoon’s Mendel Art Gallery. In this post I get up on my soapbox and spew venom on both sides of the fee vs. free admission debate. I’ll start of by letting everyone know my position on this, so you can decide whether you want to continue reading. My position is this: I support reasonable user fees for public galleries and museums. I’m also in favour of exhibiting so-called “vernacular” art even though I don’t like much of the latter.

Update 11:00 pm, 9 March 2007: Be sure to check out my Vernacular Art Redux post after you’ve finished this one.

I haven’t been party to much of the Mendel debate. After all, I have been out of the country for the better part of the last three years. Still, I get the impression that neither side is willing to hear the other’s case objectively.

Now please remember that I’m an artist. I have a vested interest in ensuring that the Mendel maintains or grows its status, funding, and position. This is no different than any other area—bureaucracy, computer enthusiasts, medical doctors, etc.—where a group evolves from a handful of individuals to an enclave, and eventually becomes well-established. I want to see arts support grow to the point where professional artistic activity is seen as a valid pursuit by a majority of people, and where art practice is seen as a viable career. I have also been a civic taxpayer. Before I moved overseas I was a Saskatoon homeowner, and now I pay taxes indirectly through my rent. I know what it’s like to feel the bite of tax increases.

Yes, I know that the issue of admission fees at the Mendel has come up in the past. I haven’t seen any of the past Mendel studies, but I think the polarization of those in favour of “free access to all” in one camp against those who want people to pay for using the facility might have caused some problems. I think that those who commission studies often steer the instructions so that the studies confirm their own preconceptions. It is common for people to seek information that confirms their world view and past actions, and ignore contrary evidence. If the Mendel board wants there to be no fee, I can see them steering the report in that direction. If city councillors want there to be a fee, they will find a rationale in favour of charging money for admission. It reminds me of drug companies who have a vested interest in specific outcomes from their clinical trials, who bury negative results in the footnotes of their reports, while trumpeting the confirmation of their initial desires/assumptions. I don’t think the city should have referred matter to the Mendel board, who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Nor do I think city council should make the decision about fees. I think that a joint committee of proponents and opponents should be charged with the evaluation. That way both parties would be required to come up with reasonable defenses for their respective positions and hear each other out. Of course, in a worst-case scenario nothing would be achieved but bickering.

Any implementation of fees would have to be well-considered and well-implemented. I would support something like the optional admission policy in place at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, but the suggested fee would have to be at a rate that reflects Mendel’s audience demographic rather than the $20 the Met asks for. Alternately, a mandatory fee system like what I saw in Japan—tiered admission for different types of shows—also seems palatable. In practice at the Mendel, I could see a system where local primary through secondary students get free or deeply discounted admission (serving the educational mandate), where admission to the permanent collection was a token affordable amount, and where “attraction-type” shows had a premium admission charge. As noted in a previous post, this strategy seemed to work well in Japan. Whatever the case, I would want there to be at least one reasonable period weekly (an afternoon, evening, or entire day) completely free.

I don’t want to gloss over the fact that this question of admission fees is intimately connected to fundamental issues of philosophy about art, especially as it relates to public institutions. Questions arise about the purpose of art and art institutions, and why they exist. Some museums see their mission as educational. These venues exist to enlighten the ignorant, a mission that I believe has roots in the history of literacy and the church in Europe. Others try to entertain, titillate, or shock. Yet others combine any number of these factors, or simply exist to serve as a safe haven for experimentation.

I could make a comment about the near-evangelical zeal with which contemporary art boosters approach their subject matter, but it’s late, and I’m tired. And such a comment could as easily be made about sports fans, business people, or environmentalists. Or sports-loving environmentalist artist business-people. Maybe another time.

Many questions have come up as I’ve thought about this issue of fees. And I’ve been thinking about it so much that it’s sidetracked me from engaging in my professional practice of being an artist. One of the big questions I find myself asking is why am I so obsessed with these issues? I haven’t yet found a satisfactory answer, but I’m leaning towards the fact that the way society values the arts has a direct impact on me, my livelihood, and my family.

Meanwhile, one of the other big questions is: Why is the Mendel so strongly dismissive of vernacular art?

For the purposes of this essay I’m going to arbitrarily lump together cowboy or “western” art, wildlife art, and other so-called genre work under this heading. I’m not using “vernacular” as a pejorative, I’m simply using the term to describe work that is the visual art equivalent of “the language or dialect spoken by the ordinary people…”

In some Mendel communications there have been subtle digs at unnamed politicians’ taste in art, specifically references to “western art.” While at first I felt smug about my superior aesthetics, I now find this attitude offensive. I’m pretty sure “western art” means subjects having to do with cowboys, ranching, farming, and suchlike. I’ll be honest and admit that very little vernacular art holds my interest. But the same can be said for a great deal of the work that passes muster in contemporary art circles. This lack of interesting-to-me-ness is no excuse for outright dismissal of the work. The attitudes “I think you’re ignorant because you like popular art that doesn’t fit into a fashionable curatorial box” and “I think you’re elitist because I don’t like or understand the nonsense you show in your gallery” are two sides of the same coin. I see the same argument happen between “literary” and “genre” fiction but as with fiction the question of personal taste rears its head and we return to name-calling.

It seems to me that the only time vernacular art is allowed into an art-with-a-capital-A venue is when one or more of the following conditions are met:

  1. The artist is dead and can be historicized. Artist X was an ok painter, and not really notable for his artistic vision. More an avid hobbyist than a professional artist. But he was one of the first people to try to paint the landscape around Bay Trail, Saskatchewan. We can ignore the ham-fisted execution because he is historically important. He helps to establish a chronology.
  2. The piece is an ironic comment on a popular and/or so-called “kitschy” genre. Let’s do a survey to see what kind of painting the general public likes. Then we’ll paint that painting. Repeat in different regions. Poke fun at the ignorant masses, and let the grant money flow… Something like this was done in the early 1990s by Komar & Melamid.
  3. The artist fits the criteria for some sort of ethnic/demographic quota. Let’s include Artist Y because she’s an orphan raised in Lake Diefenbaker by a renegade school of perch. Even though she’s only three years old and her paintings are blatant knock-offs of Disney characters we should give her a solo show because she hits all of the demographic criteria highlighted by our major funders as important. Besides, how often do you get to say in a press release that the art on show was made by a girl raised by fishes?
  4. A curator takes interest in the work. Take a banal painting that is no more remarkable than those of dozens of other artists. Weave an elaborate costume out of curatorial language. Make sure there are a number of fashionable catch-phrases. Dress up the work in said costume and hope that Mr. T doesn’t happen along and say “Quit yo jibba-jabba. I don’t hate the curator, but I pity the fool.”

Point 1 in defense of vernacular art: Ukiyo-e

Japanese traditional wood block prints from the 17th-20th centuries—Ukiyo-e—are much sought-after by fine art collectors and museums worldwide. This medium began as vernacular art for the masses: working people, tourists, etc. For their time, they were the equivalent of decor items sold in today’s framing shops. If Walmart had existed 200 years ago in Japan, their home decor department would have stocked ukiyo-e. According to Wikipedia,

Ukiyo-e were affordable because they could be mass-produced. They were meant for mainly townsmen, who were generally not wealthy enough to afford an original painting. The original subject of ukiyo-e was city life, in particular activities and scenes from the entertainment district. Beautiful courtesans, bulky sumo wrestlers and popular actors would be portrayed while engaged in appealing activities. Later on landscapes also became popular.

Let’s see. They were cheap, mass-produced, people bought them because they liked them and could relate to the subject matter. Sounds like a lot of the work that contemporary art institutions thumb their noses at. Despite having majored in printmaking in university and lived in Japan for two years, I haven’t seen a lot of Japanese wood block prints. But I’ve seen enough to know that the quality isn’t always great. So too with contemporary vernacular art. It’s the curator’s job to filter out the crap. I believe that a sound curatorial argument could be made to support exhibitions of this kind of work. Unfortunately for fans it’s considered an unfashionable backwater and is unlikely land anyone a job curating a major international biennale.

Point 2 in defense of vernacular art: Norman Rockwell

If Eric J. Segal could publish a serious academic essay—6000-plus words, not counting the 65 footnotes—on Norman Rockwell in The Art Bulletin in 1996, then perhaps it’s time to take note of Canadian vernacular artists. I don’t personally want to do this, nor do I think I’d find such an exploration terribly interesting. But neither would I make fun of someone who did. Vernacular art in Canada is in a situation similar to Rockwell’s. Segal points out that Rockwell’s status as “the quintessential representative of middle-brow culture in the United States” is exactly what “continues to retard serious discussion of Rockwell’s work as a cultural artifact of twentieth-century America.” The full article is Norman Rockwell and the fashioning of American masculinity. Again, I’m not a big fan of Rockwell, but I think he has curatorial and critical merit.

I could go on, but it seems that I already have. What I am trying to demonstrate is that a binary attitude is not the only approach. I believe that it is possible to take a rigorous and academically-valid look at areas of art practice that have historically been given short shrift. Some members of the community have expressed a desire to have this situation remedied. I believe that it behooves the Mendel to listen to all its clientele and seriously look at what is being asked for before dismissing it. After all businesses have gone bankrupt for smaller blunders than ignoring their customers. Which brings me to the question of numbers, attendance, and cultural relevance, as well as the subject of specialist language. But those are topics for one or more future posts.

As an somewhat-related aside, and in the context of my admission that I don’t find vernacular art interesting, if someone was to curate an exhibition that ties together various practices in vernacular art—perhaps linking ukiyo-e, Currier and Ives, Robert Bateman, Norman Rockwell, the Cowboy Artists of America, and Komar & Melamid‘s People’s choice—I’d probably find it very interesting.