More fuel for the great art - funding debate

Last updated 07:59 16/11/2012
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How do I get in here? Council quiet on the subject of entry fees for the planned Len Lye Centre

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OPINION: Lies, Lyes and damn statistics.

Sorry, we couldn't resist it, even though it has been used more than once, and quite accurately, too, as a description for some of the information and claims traded like salvoes in the ongoing civil war over art funding.

And it is apt once more, following the letter to this paper from New Plymouth District Council community services general manager Cathy Thurston.

The council has been conspicuously quiet on the subject of entry fees for the planned Len Lye Centre, if not in praise for the vision of the centre itself. So it was interesting to read the response of one of its senior managers to the often-raised suggestion that people be charged to view the collected works of kinetic artist Lye.

And even more interesting that Ms Thurston should acknowledge that visitor numbers are indeed a crucial part of the council's plan not to impose an entry fee.

Proponents of such fees have long believed that the council has resisted them out of fear that they would decimate attendance at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery and the new facility.

According to Ms Thurston, they are right. She points to research that suggests a fee would dramatically reduce visitor numbers. Surveys of major British museums and galleries that removed charges in 2001 show attendances rose by an average of 70 per cent over the next year. One facility recorded a surge of 111 per cent.

That would support the council's contention that fees can be a barrier to potential audiences. Although some of the smaller, independent museums and galleries surveyed believed entry charges had helped them to expand and focus more on the customers' needs.

But the council is on less stable ground when it applies a social context to the figures and debate.

Ms Thurston says imposing an entry fee on the Len Lye Centre would discourage those who can least afford it from visiting the gallery and enjoying the work of this prominent Kiwi artist.

But that is not wholly backed up in the surveys.

Research by MORI showed that while attendances from all socio-economic groups increased at British facilities after charges were dropped in 2001, the biggest lift came from educated and skilled workers. The take-up by the poor and unskilled manual workers was much less pronounced. The organisation concluded that the people most likely to take advantage of free entry to museums and galleries were those who were more likely to visit in the first place.

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And it suggested that free entry would not necessarily mean people visiting more often. Of those surveyed, just 15 per cent said they would visit again because it was free.

Probably the most telling observation was that "admission charges are only one barrier to access", and possibly "not the most significant". What appeared to influence people's interest more was "the quality" and "character" of the exhibition.

Whether it was free or not.

Clearly, Ms Thurston was looking for some safety in numbers. Instead, she has found more questions.

- Taranaki Daily News

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