Opening up urban cultural institutions key to success

Post by Daniel Fontaine in


Robson Square
Are we ready to throw open the doors to our cultural institutions as a Games legacy?

With the Paralympic Games now over, another game of sorts will be played out over the coming months in Vancouver. The game will involve a number of armchair quarterbacks who will begin analyzing whether the Olympics/Paralympics were a success. Some will argue the event was a waste of time, while others will claim it was the boost that kept our economy afloat. There will also be a vocal group of people who will want to debate what they believe were the “real legacies” of the Games.

Although I plan to write about both topics in the coming weeks, I’d like to kick off the post-Games show by opening up a discussion about the role of cultural institutions in big urban centres. If you were anywhere near downtown during the Games, you couldn't have missed a not-so-insignificant line-up that formed early every morning. No, I’m not talking about the Ziptrek. I’m referring to the line-up that snaked for almost a block long to get into the Vancouver Art Gallery. Yes, the Art Gallery.

Just when you thought big cultural institutions like the VAG were losing their connection to the broader community, along comes the Olympic and Paralympic Games to give them a boost. Locals and tourists alike spent hours in line every day for a chance to check out their wonderful Da Vinci exhibit along with the best collection of BC art available. By all accounts the VAG garnered a lot of international exposure as a result. More importantly, for many thousands of locals it was the first time they stepped foot in the Gallery to experience it for themselves.

I recall when I worked at City Hall a few years ago having a discussion with our cultural affairs staff. It was triggered as a result of a previous discussion I had with a friend of mine who travels the world as part of his work. He recounted how in Paris many of the top cultural institutions such as their museums & art galleries are all open to the public for free during the Christmas to New Year period. I've had some difficulty independently confirming this, but I certainly like the concept.

He said that opening up all of these cultural institutions at one time for free was one of the best things Paris ever did to help keep them relevant to the broader community. As we all know from our recent experience during the Games, if you opens things up for free and properly promote them, the masses will partake. They will also come with their wallets full of cash and buy concession products, souvenirs and other keepsakes.

So back to my conversation with Vancouver city staff. Why couldn’t we coordinate something in Vancouver whereby all of the top cultural icons opened up their doors for free during an otherwise quiet period? Would this not help expose arts and culture to those can’t afford to visit these places on a regular basis? Would it not generate some buzz about all the “free pavilions” people could visit during the event? What if it was open to everyone with a Metro Vancouver address? I was told this was a non-starter. The concept may work in Paris, but would flop here in Vancouver. The bureaucrats said they would go away and study the idea, but I never did hear back from them on this topic.

I think a coordinated strategy of opening up all of our cultural attractions for one week of the year as part of a broader strategy to engage Vancouverites in the arts would be a huge hit. Of course we’d need to find the funding to translate this idea into a reality. But I figure if we could host the best Olympic and Paralympic Games ever, surely we can find a way of celebrating our arts and culture in this way.

Perhaps we could throw open all of these "free venues" from Feb 12-28th each year commemorate us hosting the Olympic and Paralympics Games and Cultural Olympiad. Now that's one heck of a legacy! What do you think about opening up the doors to our cultural institutions from December 26th to January 1st each year?

- post by Daniel


There are many cultural institutions all over the world, museums, art galleries come to mind, that receive public funding and are officially “mandated to throw open their doors free to the public” at least one day per week as a condition of funding from the public coffers.

In Mexico it is usually on a Sunday when most Mexican people have one day off.

And, (this is very important); these cultural institutions who “throw open their doors free to the public” are “additionally” compensated through the public funding money to cover the “free day” operating costs, including staff, heat, light, etc in order to be able to provide this "free open door" to cultivate a broader public.

This is an idea that perhaps the "staffers" at Cultural Affairs for the City of Vancouver might seize upon to provide the additional "none to attractive" operating funds to various cultural institutions to do so.

Just a thought.

I think the idea of opening up the city's cultural institutions with a free day or free period would hopefully do a lot to de-mystify these places and to show local residents that these places have something to offer. This aspiration would also be in keeping with a Tourism Vancouver official who said that the next goal should be a cultural spotlight after several years of planning that went into the Olympics and Paralympics.

If this is impossible, I think the next goal is to emulate Toronto's example of a "Nuit Blanche" ("white night") where the city's cultural institutions stay open overnight, and additional programming is added throughout the city as an incentive. (Interestingly, Toronto emulated Paris for this idea.) The closest example is to think of numerous cultural events crammed into a single evening: art, music, performance. Scotiabank is the current sponsor of Toronto's 2010 Nuit Blanche. With Scotiabank having a corporate presence here in Vancouver, it would be nice if they spearheaded an effort here in downtown Vancouver. Perhaps an event like this one may recapture some of the festivity and energy seen on the streets during the Olympics.

@ John. I have heard of the Nuit Blanche in Paris and apparently it is a huge hit. That's an interesting twist on my concept but one that would likely garner much interest and support from the community. It may also be easier to implement than a full week.

I've cut and pasted this excerpt from the Scotiabank Nuit Blanche website at This excerpt describes last year's event in Toronto. (Evidently, there's also a "Nuit Blanche" in Montreal.)

Toronto's fourth annual Scotiabank Nuit Blanche engaged audiences in a massive participatory celebration of contemporary art. Building on the success of past event's interactive art projects, the concept of audience participation was taken to a whole new level. On Saturday, October 3, 2009 close to a million members of the public literally became the art they had ventured out all night to see. New interactive tools including the Night Navigator iPhone/Blackberry app and My Night itinerary encouraged everyone to share pictures and schedules, tweet, text and talk to each other as they explored the city well into the wee hours of the morning.

Survey results indicate that over 100,000 tourists were motivated to visit Toronto to attend the event, helping to generate $18 million in local economic impact, an increase of 24 per cent over last year, as a result of visitors traveling longer distances to attend the event and an increase in overnight hotel stays.

Nearly all of San Francisco's museums each have a free day every month.

I'd definitely encourage this for Vancouver. I'm not sure if any of our cultural institutions have a "free day", but it would be great publicity and would be a way to open their doors to a wider public. I could see this being a big success for not only the VAG but Museum of Anthropology, Vancouver Museum, the Vancouver Aquarium, Nitobe and Sun Yat-Sen Gardens, Science World, and so on.

In Ottawa each Canada Day all of the National museums are open for free to the public. Let's make the happen in Vancouver at a minimum!

Free Sundays - love the idea! Knowing that I could pop downtown and cruise a museum or gallery would be ideal.

To Open the Art Venues, etc. from Feb 12- Feb. 28 Annually is a Great Idea!

this is all a grand idea, but lets start with the basics - how about funding the few existing cultural institutions properly first, so that they can conceivably afford to have a free day. The Vancouver Art Gallery actually had a free evening every week, but due to the pathetic funding situation it had to be cancelled (among other successful public programming). Generally, a good start would be to bring the overall cultural landscape here in Vancouver up to par with other cities of its size. Your average european city of about a million people will have at least 2 or 3 institutions of the caliber of the VAG, generally funded by the public. So before we have a whole night for people to roam around the cultural institutions of the city, we probably would need a few more destinations...

@flex. This could be a bit of a chicken and egg thing. The public doesn't want to put new funding into cultural institutions because they don't see it as a priority.

On the other hand, opening up the venues will help expose the public to how wonderful these places actually are. Increased public exposure could translate into increased support.

I still think it's worth a try to see if we could develop a coordinated strategy that has all the cultural institutions pulling on the rope in the same direction.

Actually, the Vancouver Art Gallery still has the long-standing "By Donation Night" every Tuesday evening from 5:30 to 9pm. This "pay-what-you-can" night is extremely popular, particularly with students, and attracts huge crowds during major exhibitions. And the number of public programs has actually increased over the past two years. The Gallery has upped the number of family programs with the addition of "Family FUSE"---two-day mega-events for families held three times annually with free admission for children---and "Weekly Family Programs at the Gallery," which provides a range of fun, complimentary "hands-on" activities for children and families with paid admission every single weekend. All that said, admissions revenue is a significant portion of the Gallery's operating budget, making all those major exhibitions and quality programs possible.

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