Monday, 10 October 2011

To be or not to be (free on Sundays)? That is not the question

Once again, I couldn´t agree more with the Secretary of State for Culture. “Free entry is not a good principle”, said Francisco José Viegas when he announced the end of free entry to museums on Sundays. But, once again, his arguments in defense of this position seem to be extremely fragile.

The Secretary of State actually explained that the percentage of paid entries to museums is currently 36% and that the ideal level for these institutions´s sustainability would be 80%. He also said that paid entries are necessary in order to preserve museums and they would allow for the generation of more income in order to fund longer opening hours.

I haven´t got any concrete data at the moment, but wouldn´t it be true that the biggest part of the 64% of free entries to museums refers to school groups (probably the most significant visitor group in portuguese museums) and not to those people visiting on Sunday mornings? Because we shouldn´t forget that entry to museums is free on Sundays until 2pm. Can we really believe that putting an end to half a day of free entry per week will solve the problem of funding necessary for preserving museums? And why to consider longer opening hours if the big majority of the Portuguese don´t visit during the actual opening times? Was there a study that inidcated that people don´t visit because opening hours are not convenient?

Neither the revenue from Sunday morning visits will make museums sustainable nor is there a need, for now, to consider longer opening hours. The big priority, and a long-term objective, is to create a relationship with the portuguese society that will become strong and lasting and could be the base of museum sustainability in general, and their financial sustainability in particular. Museums that are irrelevant and incomprehensible for the majority of citizens, that continue to work with and for the same people, that are not sufficiently promoted, haven´t got a great future ahead of them. On the other hand, museums that see themselves as live units inserted in a specific socio-cultural environment, that pay attention to the changes taking place around them, to the needs and anxieties of their audiences, museums that are involving, surprising and accessible at all levels, are museums capable of creating their own ‘family’. A family composed by those people who love what museums do, who feel good in them, who take ownership and are ready to support them: paying the entry fee; becoming volunteers and placing their time and knowledge at their service; and, why not, supporting them financially in a more substantial way than simply paying the value of the ticket.

The base of sustainability are the people we relate to and exist to serve. Which doesn´t mean that the State is exempt from any responsibility. The responsibility to create long-term objectives that don´t change every time the Minister changes; to contribute so that museums can have the financial and human resources to carry out their functions; to value access; to reward good practices and good results.

Once again, political leaders go ahead and make announcements that reveal quite a superficial analysis of reality. Once again, one starts from the end. Maybe because one is thinking about the next four years (and in the area of culture they are not usually as many...), instead of the next ten or twenty. In the last years, there was not even one Minister of Culture who shared a vision for the cultural sector (museums included), who announced long-term objectives and was able to translate them into concrete short and medium-term actions that would help achieve the ends. There has been a complete lack of strategic and structired thinking. There has been a lack of visionary political leaders, concerned not only about their immediate reputation (usually, short-lived), but about the dreams and the way to make them come true. And there is a constant lack of a sector that vindicates, that acts and doesn´t react, that is permanently on the alert.

Note: The ICOM Portuguese National Committee is organizing on the 7th of November, at the Soares dos Reis National Museum (Porto), the conference Museums and Financial Sustainability.

Still on this blog