The Changing Role of Museums in Society
Publication:
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 18 Apr 1991, p. 432-443


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Lowry, Glenn, Speaker
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Text
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Speeches
Description:
Some works of art and their potent reminder of the degree to which what is happening in the art world has a direct bearing on our lives. Reflecting upon the nature and importance of our cultural institutions. The vital role museums play in shaping society's vision of itself. The inevitable intertwining with the economy. Some surprising figures with regard to revenue from public museums and art galleries across Canada, and the art industry as compared with other industries. Cultural industries, and museums in particular, as stimulators of a wide range of other economic benefits, such as the rejuvenation of declining urban areas and the attraction of increased numbers of tourists. Cultural institutions as focal points for the development of community pride and cooperative endeavours. Some examples of these aspects of cultural institutions. Cultural institutions as more than just repositories of works of art of theatrical productions. Museums as reflections of the extraordinary expansion of artistic activity in Ontario that has taken place in recent decades and that has notably improved the quality of life. The vast array of culture resources available. The emergence of a self-image of society through artistry. A strong and confident self-image as instrumental in motivating a society's economic and social success. Art as a language. The low priority of culture in terms of government spending; some figures. Other sources of funding. The relationship between society and museums as more than a one-way street. Commitments and mandates of the Art Gallery of Ontario. The role of the Art Gallery of Ontario. Some undertakings at the AGO. The responsibilities of museums and other cultural institutions. Museums as providers of the bridge between art and society.
Date of Original:
18 Apr 1991
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English
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The speeches are free of charge but please note that the Empire Club of Canada retains copyright. Neither the speeches themselves nor any part of their content may be used for any purpose other than personal interest or research without the explicit permission of the Empire Club of Canada.
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Full Text
Glenn Lowry, Director, Art Gallery of Ontario
THE CHANGING ROLE OF MUSEUMS IN SOCIETY
Chairman: Harold Roberts President

Introduction:

Honoured guests, ladies and gentlemen:

I want to begin by telling two stories; the first apocryphal; the second actual.

A man entered a book store and approached the proprietor. "I'd like to buy a Bible."

"What version?" enquired the owner. "Oh I don't know, something new." "Well do you have a Bible now?"

"Yes, but it's an old thing and it's falling apart." "Do you know what version it is?"

"No ... but it's printed by someone named Guttenberg." "Guttenberg? That's a very valuable book! Do you realize that?" "No, but it doesn't matter because somebody by the name of Luther has written all over it."

Perchance you think it could never happen. Let me tell you a real story.

My mother's mother had a glass sandwich tray that had been in the family for years. It was quite large and of clear glass with glass beads around its perimeter. After the death of my father we cleared out the apartment and my sister took the heirloom home. Several years later I was attending a party in honour of one of my nieces, soon to be a bride. During the reception the plate was used to pass food, and during the course of the evening the caterer managed to drop the plate and it shattered on the floor. Another of my nieces who was in the room as the platter smashed, consoled the maid, "Oh don't worry, it was old anyway."

My niece has a good heart, but I honestly don't think she has a great sense of value.

Culture; be it music, art or architecture is an acquired taste. For most, it doesn't "just happen." For many Canadians this truth has yet to be discovered. To quote Christopher Hume, (Globe 14 Oct.'90) "Around here, Lowry may well find that what's possible is not what he's used to in the U.S. The tradition of philanthropy that created America's vaunted public museum system is all but absent in Canada, where culture is considered a frill, and a rather suspicious one at that."

The Lowry referred to in this paragraph is obviously our guest today. Glenn Lowry, Director of the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Dr. Lowry was the choice of the search committee from A.G.O. that was commissioned to find a successor to William Withrow, the Curator of the Museum for the last 30 years of its 90 year existence.

Dr. Lowry is a graduate with a B.A. magna cum laude from Williams College in Massachusetts and he holds an M.A. and Ph.D. from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University.

In spite of his youth, Dr. Lowry has been instrumental in building two museums; the Muscarelle Museum at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, and the Arthur Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution of Washington.

Again to quote Christopher Hume. "Clearly, the committee saw Lowry as a man who can hold his own on the gallery floor and the board room, as well as in the public eye."

Dr. Lowry comes to speak to us today on the changing role of museums in society.

Dr. Lowry, welcome to The Empire Club of Canada.

Glenn Lowry:

Mr. President, ladies and gentlemen, thank you so much for inviting me to speak to you this afternoon. This is a great challenge for me as an art historian, for as many of you may know, art historians are generally incapable of speaking without slides shown in a darkened room! It is even harder for most of us to speak without having a work of art to talk about. So I hope that you will bear with me as I try to explore with you some of the many ways our lives are affected by art on the one hand, and what we do in the museums on the other. The controversy over Robert Mapplethorpe's sexually charged photographs last year, or the National Gallery of Canada's display of Jana Sterbak's "Vanitas: A Flesh Dress for an Albino Anorexic", are potent reminders of the degree to which what is happening in the art world has a direct bearing on our lives.

As these controversies continue to emerge, and we continue to feel the effects of the recession, not to mention the impact of the constitutional debate that the country is struggling with, I believe it is worth pausing for a moment to reflect upon the nature and importance of our cultural institutions. There are those who believe that art museums are nothing more than an attractive window-dressing for society--a banner marking a wealthy and affluent people, but an easy frill to cut when economic times get rough. My goal today is to illustrate for you the vital role museums play in shaping society's vision of itself. In these times, however, any discussion of the arts is inevitably intertwined with the economy and I want to share with you some surprising figures:

According to the 1990 survey of The Council for Business and the Arts in Canada, 1989/90 revenue from public museums and art galleries across the country totalled in excess of $336 million.

In 1987, the Ontario Arts Council commissioned a detailed report on the Economic Impact of the Arts in Ontario. The report came up with several interesting facts about the arts and culture sector, which were published in the Council's 1989 document entitled "In the Province of Artists" and I want to quote freely from it.

Among Canada's 20 largest manufacturing industries, the arts industry is:

• 4th in persons employed;
• 6th in wages and salaries;
• 9th in revenue;

The economic impact of the arts and culture sector is about the same as:

• metal and mines;
• food and beverages;
• electrical power;
• gas and other utilities;
• accommodation and food services;
and is bigger than:
• tobacco;
• rubber;
• textiles;
• clothing;
• furniture and fixtures.

The arts sector has grown at a much faster rate in recent years than the economy as a whole. In the decade between 1971 and 1981, the arts labour force grew twice as fast (at 66 percent) as the labour force as a whole (at 33 percent).

Cultural industries, and museums in particular, also stimulate a wide range of other economic benefits, including the rejuvenation of declining urban areas and the attraction of increased numbers of tourists; one need only think of Harbourfront in this context to see the value of such efforts.

in the same way cultural institutions can also become the focal points for the development of community pride and cooperative endeavours. The recent restoration of the Music Building at the CNE is a perfect illustration of the kind of collaborative projects that I am thinking of here.

But I mention these facts not to justify the arts on economic terms, but to underline the fact that our cultural institutions must be seen as more than just a repository of works of art or theatrical productions. Museums throughout this province reflect the extraordinary expansion of artistic activity that has taken place in recent decades and that has notably improved the quality of life here, a fact that should not, and cannot, always be seen in economic terms. Ontario now offers its citizens a wide array of cultural resources of international calibre that distinguish it from many other locales throughout North America. We should be proud of the province's achievements and look forward to ever greater accomplishments. The strength of a society lies in its continued economic and cultural growth.

We behave in particular ways because of what we think of ourselves. That is how we set our goals and muster the perseverance and determination to achieve them. In Toronto alone the determination to create a new and vibrant society is nowhere better reflected than in the soaring skyscrapers that define the city's dramatic skyline and stand in stark contrast to Toronto's rural and provincial past; a past humorously depicted in Joe Fafard's The Pasture in the Toronto Dominion Bank Complex.

How is this self-image created? It cannot be dictated to us by governments or individuals. Rather, it is an image that emerges from the imagination of artists, who explore through their work the very nature of society, showing us in the process where we came from, what we are and what we can become. One need only think of Charlie Pachter's The Painted Rag in Fast Canadian Place or Michael Snow's Flight Stop in the Eaton Centre to see how works of art can both challenge and define our sense of identity.

The establishment of a strong and confident self-image is instrumental in motivating a society's economic and social success. Japan is a particularly dramatic case in point, as the country re-built itself in the aftermath of World War II. Japanese society's dedicated and disciplined self-image led it to overcome formidable obstacles to establish itself as an international leading force, not only commercially, but also culturally, through cuisine, cinema, architecture and graphic design.

Ontario has its own challenge in establishing a self-image. We are a young society and do not have the advantage of centuries of history to extract a deep-seated sense of identity. In addition, our multicultural heritage represents one of the most diverse and dynamic mixtures in the world.

The development of a vital and sustained artistic life in Ontario will be crucial in establishing a strong well articulated self-image: one that all Ontarians can share with pride.

In the Throne Speech of November 1990, the Government of Ontario recognized the importance of the arts to the economy and to the quality of life here, and made a commitment to increase support to artists.

The Art Gallery of Ontario fully endorses this measure. Artists all too often have had to work under depressed economic conditions and depend on the augmented support of the government in order to revitalize and continue the development of our culture.

However, government support of culture cannot begin and end with artists--that is only half of the equation. Our society must be given greater access to the work of our artists, to be given the opportunity to better understand these works in relationship to themselves. Support for artists without a concomitant support for the institutions that display, preserve, and interpret their work is like support for actors without an equal support for the theatres necessary for staging the productions in which they star.

The visual arts in particular are an area where one needs the chance to study a wide variety of objects from the past and the present in order to understand who we are and where we are going.

Art is a language, a means of communicating deeply felt thoughts and beliefs. Like any language it has its own set of rules and codes. These are not always immediately apparent. Often we confuse the ability to describe or see a work of art with the ability to understand that object. Take, for instance, contemporary art like Jana Sterbak's "Vanitas" that I mentioned earlier, with its challenging yet disturbing forms. On one level the piece can be read simply as 23 kilograms of red meat stitched together to look like a dress. On another level, however, as "Vanitas" decomposes into dried and distorted forms it becomes a thoughtful, if troubling, meditation on the transitory nature of life. Moreover its overt reference to fashion allows the piece to also be seen as a statement about the constraints that society imposes on women.

In order to understand what is being communicated, however, we must be able to understand the language used by the artist. There is only one way this can occur and that is through study and contemplation, and museums play a central role in providing a forum for this process to take place. By exhibiting and interpreting the most challenging works of art, whether they be of the past or the present, museums create a context in which works of art can be seen and appreciated for what they are: unique expressions of powerfully felt ideas and feelings that inform as well as delight us.

Government support of our public art galleries and museums is crucial for Ontario to enjoy its visual heritage and preserve it for future generations.

Unfortunately, culture has never been a high priority in government spending. In 1990/91, the Ontario Government allocated less than 1 percent (0.61 percent) of its budget to the Ministry of Culture and Communications. This amount includes the funds provided to the Ontario Arts Council, as well as direct support for museums across the province.

Ontario Government funding directed towards public art museums and galleries is among the most limited in Canada. According to the Council for Business and the Arts in Canada, in 1989/90 Ontario ranked 9th out of the 12 provinces and Territories in terms of its per capita spending on art museums and galleries, ahead only of New Brunswick, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland. There is a certain irony to this when one remembers that Ontario has almost twice as many art institutions as its neighbouring province, Quebec (38 in Ontario, compared to 20 in Quebec)--and almost 50 percent more population. Quebec ranked number 3 in the survey, spending 22 percent more per capita than Ontario on art museums and galleries.

We are confident that with its commitment to artists, the Ontario Government will also recognize the essential role of public art galleries and museums in bringing art and people together.

However, public art galleries and museums cannot depend solely on government funding. In 1989/90, funding from the private sector for public art galleries across Canada totalled in excess of 30 percent of their operating revenue.

Art institutions like the AGO count on strong private support to provide both financial and human resources, in order to ensure their survival.

In 1989/90, close to $3 million of the AGO's operating revenues came from individuals and corporations, through admissions, memberships, retail sales, sponsorships and donations. This private support is essential to enable our institution to present exhibitions and other public programs and activities throughout the year.

In addition, the AGO received incredible private support in 1989/90 to bolster the holdings of our Permanent Collection: $13 million in gifts of works of art and $1 million in cash donations for the purchase of works of art. No public funds are used by the AGO for acquisitions--these funds come entirely from the private sector and reflect the continued commitment of the community to the AGO's mission.

Individual and corporate support of art museums, however, follows a trend similar to government funding. In good economic times, we provide a nice tax break. In bad economic times, we're considered as one of the first frills to be cut.

This, despite the fact that the cultural sector not only represents a significant economic factor in and of itself, but also provides a variety of other direct and indirect economic benefits as well as a crucial intellectual resource that cannot be replaced by other activities or institutions.

Works of art are tangible artifacts that allow us to experience directly the most potent forces of human creativity. In doing so they strengthen our understanding of the past as well as the present.

The cultural strengthening of a society results in a significant benefit that is not evident on a short-term basis. Any examination of the evolution of today's leading economic powers clearly shows that cultural forces play a major role in fostering and promoting economic expansion. Wherever we find international economic success stories, we find a strong cultural component intertwined with basic commercial activity. The United States, Japan and many European nations have long recognized the value of building foreign policy and trading initiatives upon their cultural strengths. Consider the cultural images associated with the products of major European nations: the refinement and sophistication of French wines and fashions; the technical excellence of German automobiles; or the innovative audacity of Italian design. Do the products shape the images, or do the images shape the products?

The relationship between society and museums is not a one-way street. While both public and private sectors are responsible for the continued existence of art museums, these institutions also have a commitment to fulfil.

Art museums cannot be ivory towers, isolated in their own world, with their own language and their own priorities.

If we are to play a role in our society, we must make a commitment to make art accessible to people. This is a commitment that we at the Art Gallery of Ontario have enshrined in our mission statement which states that our goal is to be a great art museum that brings art and people together. This commitment grows out of the fact that the AGO began its life more than ninety years ago as a small community gallery originally called the Art Museum of Toronto. Even as our building, collections, and programs expanded to national and international levels, and we acquired a broader provincial mandate in 1966 to become the Art Gallery of Ontario, we have preserved our dedication to serving the community.

Museums provide a central arena where individuals can meet in order to look, examine, and wonder at art and learn in the process that when we judge a work of art we are also judging ourselves.

Museums around the world are taking a long hard look at the ways in which they display art, and are examining ways to make art more understandable and enjoyable for a wider audience. This re-evaluation reflects the critical role played by museums in providing a forum for developing an appreciation and understanding of art.

At the AGO, we are undertaking an intensive exercise in this area. As part of our Stage III expansion, a project that will be completed in the fall of 1992, every gallery in the institution is being stripped and reinstalled. Teams representing virtually every area of the Gallery--including Curatorial, Education, and Marketing, are developing new and innovative ways to interpret each gallery to make the most of each visiting experience. Our goal is to create an environment in which all visitors feel welcome yet challenged by our installations and exhibitions, I believe that museums must be intellectual and cultural focal points for the communities they serve, but they must also be open and accessible to all people. Visiting a museum should not simply be an exercise in looking at art. Rather it should be a unique experience where visitors enter into an intense dialogue with the objects displayed as well as the thoughts of the people who have developed the installations or exhibitions. Experiencing art is not a passive endeavour--it is an emotional and intellectual activity, and it is a museum's responsibility to foster and encourage this.

Museums also have a responsibility to display art that reflects and represents society. Our society is composed of rich and varied cultures that contribute to Ontario's identity. The achievements that we present must reveal a broad image of our society, not one that reflects only a part of the whole.

The cultural plurality of today's society presents a real challenge to art museums. Ontario is not alone in re-examining its artistic representation. British Columbia, for example, is studying the integration of native art into the mainstream. Other countries, such as England, are incorporating the art of more recent immigrant populations to reflect the emerging awareness of the complexity of its society.

We at the Art Gallery of Ontario are examining closely how to respond to the changing nature of society in this province and country. We are searching for ways to make our exhibitions and programs more relevant and exciting to our visitors, while seeking ways to broaden our audience. This will inevitably lead us into a dialogue with the many different communities that make up our audience, which will in turn help us to develop new and more exciting exhibitions and programs.

In the process of doing this we must not forget that museums have an obligation to make choices, to decide what should be acquired for the permanent collection, or what should be displayed in the galleries. In some circles this has become a controversial issue for in making choices we exclude as many objects or exhibitions as we include. We have been accused, as well, of doing this on the basis of quality, as seen especially from the vantage point of a European oriented perspective.

Well, museums are about quality, for art itself is about quality. Indeed, the very word art is derived from the Greek term meaning skill or accomplishment.

The mark of a great museum is the strength and quality of its collections and programs. One need only think of the Louvre in Paris or the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to see this. But quality and cultural diversity are not mutually exclusive. Art, no matter what its origins, is about experience, about feelings, and about ideas. Great works of art no matter where they come from, or who made them, are those that succeed in transcending the commonplace or the quotidian to reveal fundamental truths about life. At the Art Gallery of Ontario we are committed to ensuring that we remain at the centre of any discussion about the arts so that we can provide a means for all who are interested to experience the achievements of the past, as well as the present, in order to be prepared for the future. For museums ultimately provide the bridge between art and society. In allowing for the expression and evaluation of cultural issues, museums also allow for the affirmation of what we hold dear as well as the creation of new values that are critical to our understanding of who we are and what we would like to be.

Thank you very much.

The appreciation of the meeting was expressed by Katie Hermant, Vice Chairman, Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Canada, Treasurer, Dora Maver Moore Awards, and a Director of The Empire Club of Canada.

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The Changing Role of Museums in Society


Some works of art and their potent reminder of the degree to which what is happening in the art world has a direct bearing on our lives. Reflecting upon the nature and importance of our cultural institutions. The vital role museums play in shaping society's vision of itself. The inevitable intertwining with the economy. Some surprising figures with regard to revenue from public museums and art galleries across Canada, and the art industry as compared with other industries. Cultural industries, and museums in particular, as stimulators of a wide range of other economic benefits, such as the rejuvenation of declining urban areas and the attraction of increased numbers of tourists. Cultural institutions as focal points for the development of community pride and cooperative endeavours. Some examples of these aspects of cultural institutions. Cultural institutions as more than just repositories of works of art of theatrical productions. Museums as reflections of the extraordinary expansion of artistic activity in Ontario that has taken place in recent decades and that has notably improved the quality of life. The vast array of culture resources available. The emergence of a self-image of society through artistry. A strong and confident self-image as instrumental in motivating a society's economic and social success. Art as a language. The low priority of culture in terms of government spending; some figures. Other sources of funding. The relationship between society and museums as more than a one-way street. Commitments and mandates of the Art Gallery of Ontario. The role of the Art Gallery of Ontario. Some undertakings at the AGO. The responsibilities of museums and other cultural institutions. Museums as providers of the bridge between art and society.