A little under the radar last week, the National Gallery laid off 27 staff members, most of them in the gallery's education and foundation departments.
It's always troubling to see our cultural institutions chopping staff and programs, not only because it throws people out of work, but it's an indication of a darker truth -- that either we have a government that doesn't see the value of investing in our institutions, or a public that doesn't care to patronize them; according to the NGC's numbers, about 900,000 bought tickets when it opened in 1998; in 2009, that number was less than 300,000.
Times are tough all over, and the reality is that museums and galleries are faced with making ends meet, either by program and staff reductions (here in Toronto, the AGO laid off 23 people, including several key staff from their curatorial department last year; not renewing contracts brought the total staff reduction to nearly 100), or goofy blockbuster shows aimed at drawing the broadest swatch of ticket-buyers possible. The AGO, of course, has Tut, and the National Gallery this summer has Pop Life, a layman-friendly omnibus of late-20th century greatest hits, from Warhol to Koons to Hirst.
Ticket sales aren't make-or-break for public institutions, but they aren't insignificant, either; of the NGC's annual $60 million budget, about $10 million is predicated on gate receipts. What this might mean in terms of programming isn't hard to guess -- more user-friendly shows like Pop Life, possibly fewer Canada-specific gems like last year's smart and timely Nomads, of the up-and-coming generation of Vancouver artists. Possibly. But let's hope not.