Monday, 6 June 2011

The difference between "more" and "diverse"

Before talking about the news that come from the other side of the Atlantic, I would like to state once again my conviction that free entries may multiply visits (which is something also desirable), but cannot, on their own, diversify the audiences of cultural institutions, namely museums and performance halls. It doesn´t seem realistic to me that we continue to use the gratuity argument in support of democracy and equality. For the majority of the people that don´t visit museums, it´s not the ticket price (in Portugal, between €2 and €5 with discounts in national museums) that constitutes the barrier. In the same way, there are very good quality performances for €5 and with small audiences and others, much more expensive, that sell out. What makes the difference? The relevance and importance a specific offer has in people´s lives. And also being aware of that offer or not.

Having said that, one cannot ignore that in fact there exist people who wish to participate in cultural activities, but might not be able to afford it. It is an obligation for cultural institutions to consider this need, especially those supported with public funds. Free shows along the season, special prices for all in specific week days or free entries to museums on specific days of the week or the year, joint promotions among institutions – everything duly and widely promoted – are a possible answer for this need. It doesn´t mean access to all offers? That´s true, but things have a price and it´s up to each one of us to decide what is important to invest on and what is worth saving for.

When talking about diversifying our audiences though, cultural institutions must undertake a more complex deed. And the first factor to be considered is not the price. It is necessary to develop an extensive outreach programme. To get to know better the habits, needs and tastes of the people we wish to establish a relationship with is something not primarily related to offering a free entry. And should we consider that this is something that we have to do, among other things, let´s offer free entries to those people. Why extend it to everyone, though, even to those willing and capable of paying?

I presented my arguments against gratuity in two posts last year, one on museums and another on theatres, to which I would now like to add two points. First, even when entry is free, visiting a museum or attending a performance is never totally free: transport (public or private) is not free, parking in many cases neither, a meal before or after, he need to hire a babysitter… There are various costs associated and they may be significant and determinant when deciding to visit a museum/theatre or not. The second point I would like to make is that cultural institutions must pay particular attention in the way they defend and offer gratuity. When being an artist is considered a hobby and not a profession, when a big part of our society sees artists as subsidy-dependant living at the cost of everyone else, what kind of message do cultural institutions send when they offer this work (made by professionals, many times with great sacrifice) for free?

Passing now to that piece of transatlantic news: Mixed Blood Theatre in the city of Minneapolis, USA, announced last month that it will provide free access to all mainstage productions in the next three seasons (read here). The initiative is called Radical Hospitality. In the meantime, the theatre will continue charging for season passes and also for tickets bought in advance in order to guarantee entry to a specific show (the price will be $15). The artistic director stated that “this is a way to be true to our egalitarian mission, which is to be totally inclusive”. A local radio station asked the public: How big a role do ticket prices play in your choice of entertainment options? It´s worth reading the answers (see here). Mainly because, along those who say that ticket prices are prohibitive (and there exist some cases that need to be taken under serious consideration, like the costs for a family), there are also many people mentioning that associated costs are extremely high; that they are don´t know what the programme is or where the theatre is situated; that there exists diverse cultural offer, as well as options and prices for all purses.

I wish to transcribe, though, one of the answers: “The priority of attending live theatre and live concerts is a huge quality of life issue for my husband and me. (…) People need to chose carefully, but be willing to pay for the incredible commitment and talent that´s required to produce quality, live cultural events. We´re willing to have our checkbook lighter so that our lives are not poorer.” The person who gave this answer is probably not poor. But I believe it to be a question of scale and that the majority of people, within their financial capacities, would say the same should they think that what cultural institutions have to offer is relevant and important for their lives. This is the big challenge for those working in the cultural field.

At this time of crisis and cuts, national museums in the UK have started reconsidering the application of entrance fees (see reports on the impact of free entry in my post on museums). The Metropolitan Museum of Art – with free entry, but a recommended admission price of $20 – will be raising this amount to $25 as from July 1 (read here; at the end of the article there is a table of entrance fees to various American museums of art). At the same time, given the success of the Alexander Mc Queen exhibition, the museum will exceptionally open on Monday for those willing to pay $50 in order to visit (read here). There are also theatres in the USA that ask people to pay what they can in order to attend a show.

The need to generate income and work towards self-sustainability is real. The concern to give access to an offer that everyone has the right to enjoy as well. Nevertheless, when it´s access we wish to talk about, I would say that free entry is an easy measure. And that, even though, it doesn´t bring about the desired results in what concerns diversifying our audiences. In order for that to happen, there is a need for a greater effort and, in many cases, for quite a different mentality in the approach. Access starts with the language we use.

Some more reading suggestions

Still in this blog

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