The Toronto Public Library is the only good thing to have come from amalgamation. One of the worst things to have come from amalgamation, on the other hand, is City Council’s insistence that everything that it doesn’t do is a result of not being able to afford to do it, and that everything that it does do is a result of not being able to afford not to do it.
Last Wednesday morning, June 27, Mayor David Miller and a slew of dignitaries (Torontoist was seated behind David Crombie, John Honderich, and Councillor Paul Ainslie) were on hand at the Toronto Reference Library for the official launch of the Sun Life Financial Museum and Arts Pass. It’s a wonderful initiative that attempts to be the first small step towards making Toronto’s cultural institutions more accessible to those who might be put off by the steep admission charges. Each library branch will each week have five passes for each of the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Royal Ontario Museum, the Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art, the Bata Show Museum, the Textile Museum of Canada, and eight of the ten City of Toronto Historic Museums. A pass is valid for multiple people, and although the specific details vary by institution, most are valid for admission for up to two adults and four children. The passes can be taken out with a valid library card, but no holds or reservations are permitted; it’s first-come first-served, so expect long lines at the 24 branches in the “13 City-designated priority neighbourhoods” [PDF] at which the passes become available today, Tuesday, July 3. The plan is to roll out the program to all 99 branches sometime next year. Either way, the demand will certainly exceed the supply.
After all, this kind of sells itself, right? Apparently not.
That’s where Sun Life Financial comes in. In exchange for naming rights for the program and the appearance of their logo (above the TPL logo) on the passes themselves (a scan of the back of one appears above), Sun Life is paying for the “promotion.” According to City Librarian Josephine Bryant, this means the “printing and production value”—as examples, she cited the banner and Starbucks-catered breakfast at the launch, the physical printing of the passes themselves (8 cm by 6 cm glossy paper cards), and “staffing.” Of what does the “staffing” consist? So far, no one. All of the work in establishing the program has been carried out by current library employees, but they hope to have “one part-time position” responsible for the administration of the program. Bryant made clear that no money from Sun Life is going to pay the cultural institutions; they are all participating of their own good will.
Hmm. The TPL didn’t need any sponsorship putting together or promoting its Local Music Collection. True, it sought assistance from Soundscapes in choosing worthy albums, and it held a concert consisting of Blocks Recording Club artists, but it’s not the TD Canada Trust Local Music Collection brought to you by TD Canada Trust.
“We wouldn’t be able to do it without the support of our program partner, Sun Life Financial,” declared Mayor Miller at the launch. Really? That’s not exactly what we’d been told by people familiar with the situation. Apparently, the Mayor’s office had specifically instructed the TPL to come up with a “sponsored program.” Just like with “street furniture,” the Mayor’s office made sure that undertaking this initiative without the involvement of a private corporation was never an option on the table. Unlike with “street furniture,” however, the MAP program involved an extremely minimal capital investment and as such there seemed to be even less of an argument for a reliance on private money; indeed, the TPL had put this program together before they brought on the sponsor (which happened in a closed session of the June 11 meeting of the TPL Board). Sun Life wasn’t even their first choice; they had previously failed to reach a mutually-satisfactory agreement with another company.
Another unfortunate aspect of this program is that it has been cited by the ROM as its justification for jacking up the price of its once-free Friday nights. If a handful of people are going to get in free via the Library, they are evidently absolved of a responsibility to the public at large.
At the MAP launch, AGO head Matthew Teitelbaum (whose full job title is the “Michael and Sonja Koerner Director, and CEO”) stated that cultural institutions should be “barrier-free,” “accessible,” and “have the qualities of home.” Further, he proclaimed that this program will allow the institutions “to invite others to share in the great riches of our public space” and that the city is a “different place when corporations come forward to help us realize our dreams.” While we don’t doubt that Teitelbaum means well, we would hope that even he would acknowledge that any space the “barrier-free” access to which is contingent upon the consumption of advertising is not one that is truly public.
“Corporate sponsorship might be nice in theory to some people, but in practice it’s anything but nice,” commented Library Board member Adam Chaleff-Freudenthaler— who voted against the deal—on our post about the renaming of the Hummingbird Centre. “When an issue arises where it’s public interest versus private (sponsor) interest, it isn’t the public interest that takes priority.”
So what’s next? Selling naming rights to public schools? Yes, indeed.
Jonathan Goldsbie is a campaigner with the Toronto Public Space Committee but must give credit to Spacing‘s Leah Sandals for sparking the debate around Toronto’s museums as public spaces. Thanks to commenter scarbie doll for the link to the news item about the Ottawa School Board.