Following Wednesday’s announcement by Ontario culture minister Aileen Carroll, six GTA cultural institutions will receive an additional $43.4 million in funding that recognizes “the innovative programming and collections that attract millions of visitors and help Ontario compete on the international stage.” The beneficiaries of this one-time surge of $18.6 million and total annual operating increase of $24.8 million are the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Royal Ontario Museum, the Royal Botanical Gardens, the Ontario Science Centre, the Ontario Heritage Trust, and the McMichael Canadian Art Collection.
Toronto brands itself as being rich in culture, and these venues lead in defining Toronto as a world-class city. In a time when the role of the arts in public-school education is financially undervalued, it is vitally important to ensure proper funding for educational cultural institutions. The economic return from tourism is enough to justify this spending decision. Now that the provincial government has once again recognized the economic importance of investing in cultural infrastructure, the burning question remains: how does this increase in funding cycle back to benefit the tax payers of Ontario?
One obvious answer would be accessibility through ticket prices. A single, regular-priced admission at any of these institutions is more than you would earn during an hour of minimum-wage labour. At the ROM, admission rates have been steadily increasing. Restrictions on discounts are plentiful, and it is not possible to visit featured special exhibitions without paying. The Ontario Science Centre does not even offer a separate student admission price, let alone a discounted evening, and prices at the McMichael are constant throughout the week as well. In addition, membership rates at the Royal Botanical Gardens have almost doubled over the past few years. This issue of affordability lies not in the standard price but in the lack of discounts. Comparable cultural institutions in other global cities have more generous student discounts and better free admission schedules: in New York City, for example, a museum that receives any amount of public funding is required to have a pay-what-you-wish admission policy.
The AGO shows a greater commitment to the community with free weekday admission for teachers and high-school students of Ontario, but this announcement will not increase its affordability. AGO director and CEO Matthew Teitelbaum told Torontoist that this extra funding will allow the AGO to continue to offer free Wednesday evening admissions, but that there are no plans to extend the free hours or to offer additional discounts to what is already in place. Teitelbaum said that the AGO realizes there are people who cannot afford to come at the regular admission price but they are “not yet ready to say that the admission price is a factor in [their] thinking about how to build audiences.”
Over the past few months, the ROM, AGO, and Royal Botanical Gardens have been rebranding, restructuring, and quickly growing into their respective, recently expanded buildings. Now it is time to refocus on educational programming and the local community. It is critical for these cultural institutions to re-evaluate their priorities in their upcoming budget meetings and ensure that the best aspects of cultural education aren’t lost to the current generation because of a focus on a small percentage of the population.