Saturday, 29 September 2012

Conference at the National Gallery of Canada

I was invited to attend a conference today in the auditorium of the National Gallery of Canada organized by the Director of the NGC and the French Embassy. The theme of this conference was entitled ''Visions: Art Museums in the 21 Century'' a discussion on the transformation and challenges facing museums today and the role of directors.

Invited guests where Xavier Dectot, Director of the new Louvre-Lens (pronounce Lance) in the small city of Lens (pop 36,000) in the Nord du Pas de Calais, which is near the Belgian border, an old coal mining area.
This new museum will open on 4 December 2012 designed by a team of Japanese architects, it is enormous and sits on 22 hectares of land formerly known as Pit no.9. It is an all glass building, each single pane of glass measures an impressive 6.80 meters or 22 feet in length.
The other guest speaker was Laurent Salomé, Chief Curator at the Réunion des Musées Nationaux, Grand Palais in Paris. who spoke on what they were doing to bring more people to the museums.

Paul Lang, Chief Curator of the NGC was hosting and Marc Mayer, Director of the NGC was present as was the French Ambassador and his spouse. There was probably about 150 museum members present. The conference was in French with English simultaneous translation.

It was interesting to hear both guests who painted a difficult picture of the realities of Art Museums today, the average French Citizens goes only once per year to any museum. Only 50% of the population of France actually goes to visit a museum. Most people who visit museums are women over 50, usually retired with some money and a University diploma. The challenge for the director in attracting visitors to the New Louvre-Lens is as follows; the new museum is situated in an economically depressed area, the coal mines all shut down in the 1970's, largely a young population, poorly educated with high levels of unemployment. Lens in its description reminded me of those mining company towns in novels like Germinal by Emile Zola. The construction of the new Louvre-Lens follows the democratization and decentralization of museums, a movement which is popular in Canada and now being copied in France. So what will be on show at the Louvre-Lens will be borrowed for 5 years from le Grand Louvre in Paris. It will also feature temporary exhibits and contemporary artworks.

Canada and France have numerous collaborative efforts in the organizations of exhibitions and studies. This brings about a sharing of exhibits touring cities around the world, to save money and to generate revenues for each museum. Our guests bemoaned the fact that in France the budgets for Culture have been slashed severely. We were told that we should be thankful our Canadian Government which reduced the budgets of all National Museums has not been more drastic in comparison.

Reliance on private donors and private funding for exhibits is now the game and multinational companies are being courted assiduously, they are taking up where national governments have left off. In the last 15 years major exhibits have been funded almost 100% by private enterprise in Canada but also now in France and probably elsewhere in the world. Though our French guests admitted that there was still a big debate in France between generations of Curators on the merit of having private companies finance Art exhibits, many see that as cheapening the process.

Attendance is also down in Museums and I can vouch for that, I can see it at the NGC in Ottawa but also at the other National Museums like Civilizations and the National War Museum how very few people visit everyday.  Xavier Dectot was saying that if you took out only 3 famous art work at the Louvre, people would probably stay away, he mentioned the Venus of Milo, the Mona Lisa and the Victory of Samothrace. Entire galleries like the one devoted to the 17th century painter Nicolas Poussin are deserted. We saw that in Italy where people went to a museum to see one art work and ignore the rest, comes to mind the David by Michelangelo in Firenze.

The French are promoting now something we have been doing in Canadian Museums for a long time which is to make use of technology to promote museums, sending docents out to schools to promote art works and interest in the arts in general. Offer school teachers free programs to help them with their class curriculum. I was pleased to hear our guests compliment Canada and the NGC for our modern approach in trying to attract the public back to our museums.

I was relieved to see that our problems in Canada are the same elsewhere, a factor of a changing world and interest and falling educational standard. They are not insurmountable but a major challenge for any  museum director.

I also learned that a major retrospective of the work of Marie-Elizabeth Vigée-Lebrun will be held at the NGC in 2014. She is said to be the most important female painter of the 18th century in France. She was the official painter of Marie-Antoinette. She also worked in Italy, Russia at the Court of Catherine II, in Switzerland and in England. There has never been a retrospective of her work.

Marie Elizabeth Vigée-Lebrun (1755-1842)



  1. Very interesting. The euro crisis means that European cultural institutions of all kinds will have to get used to less government funding. I bet more will be looking at how other countries like Canada do it.

    You know where art galleries and museums are packed? Japan. I couldn't get over it. Japanese people love western art and music. In Tokyo, I went into a huge music store that had an entire floor dedicated to classical music (you'd never see that here) and it was packed too.

    1. Debra, indeed in this conference the message came out that Canada was an example to follow in museology. Which only goes to show that we are doing many things right but don't seem to know it. I too found Japan a fascinating country and the interest of Japanese for culture is very nice to see.

  2. We have major cuts to come, my National Gallery friend tells me. Yet there are still no plans to charge admissions - do yours? - and I reckon some kind of tourist tax should embrace that. Difficult, I know.

    I pity France and especially Spain, where reports on the swinging blows to culture get worse by the day.

    1. Yes the NGC and other museums do charge an admission fee, the structure is based on the usual criteria, general admission, student, seniors. Members who pay each year a membership fee, get in for free. Volunteers like me get free entrance and free parking plus 10% off any purchases. What I liked about the talk yesterday was that Canada was an example to follow for museums elsewhere, which is always nice to hear. The NGC did consider free entrance for all, but the total budget is $58 million, not much when you consider the collections and the size of the museum.

  3. Admission charges along the lines you outlined are the norm in the States as well. Many museums honor each other's memberships reciprocally.

    In Phoenix, the Art Museum is open without an admission charge after 5:00 pm on the first Friday of each month. It is usually well attended. I've not seen any data on whether it is a good idea financially. In theory, people who come for free might like the museum and come back again and pay admission. Equally possible people who would otherwise have paid will wait until "First Friday" and go for free.