Art: Buddies in bad times

The tough economy is forcing galleries and museums to find new audiences like never before: pushing glitz and glamour, and sometimes even co-operating with rivals.

Since the subject is celebrity, let’s put it in Hollywood terms: having two of Toronto’s cultural behemoths opening simultaneous exhibits that each deal with fame, glamour and the mass media could have been as awkward as two starlets showing up on a red carpet in identical couture gowns. But instead, the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Royal Ontario Museum hit upon a novel solution, teaming up for a marketing and promotional partnership that ROM CEO William Thorsell hopes will offer a “richer palette” for audiences — and generate more revenue, too.

Opening on Sept. 26 at the ROM, Vanity Fair Portraits: Photographs 1913–2008, highlights some of the glossy magazine’s most celebrated images by the likes of Herb Ritts, Mario Testino and, of course, Annie Leibovitz, principal photographer for the publication since 1983. And, starting the same day, just a few blocks south, the AGO will be featuring Edward Steichen: In High Fashion, the Condé Nast Years, 1923–1937 — an overview of the photographer’s work and his impact on magazine design, particularly at Vogue and Vanity Fair. (Examples of Steichen’s work appear at the ROM, too.) Highlights of the organizations’ partnership include a joint media preview and advertising campaign, as well as discount ticket deals and other benefits. “The Vanity Fair show will attract a lot of people who haven’t come into the [new Daniel Libeskind–designed] Crystal yet,” says Francisco Alvarez, managing director of the ROM’s Institute for Contemporary Culture. “They’re waiting for something not so traditionally ROM-like to bring them in. We hope to capture some of the AGO’s audience as well.”

Together, the two exhibitions offer a comprehensive take on the rise of modern celebrity, from Steichen’s portraits of early film stars like Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo, right up to Leibovitz’s 2006 nude Vanity Fair cover shot of Hollywood ingénues Scarlett Johansson and Keira Knightley. And in October, the ROM will host “An Evening with Meryl Streep,” as part of a series dedicated to “The Question of Celebrity.” If this glitzy, fantasy focus seems a little dissonant in the midst of a recession, then consider the dark current running underneath: the real-life financial dilemmas of the artists. Steichen, a one-time acolyte of pioneering fine-art photographer Alfred Stieglitz, went to work at Condé Nast because he was broke. And though his influence has been enormous, he was considered a sellout by some of his art-world contemporaries. (Ansel Adams reportedly called him “the Antichrist of photography.”) Then there’s Leibovitz, a poster woman for the economic meltdown. More than $20 million in debt, she is currently on the brink of losing the copyright to her entire catalogue of photographs as well as her two homes. Such are the vagaries of art and celebrity.

And such are the vagaries of running a large cultural institution that make high-wattage exhibits and strategic partnerships not only practical, but necessary. In the past year, museums and galleries have taken a hit in their endowments, government funding, and, in some cases, attendance. Ted Silberberg, a senior principal at the international consulting firm Lord Cultural Resources, says that the biggest impact of the recession is on donations, memberships and sponsorships. “This has forced some museums to reduce staff and cut back on operating hours, exhibitions and programming,” he says.

What makes the current climate especially challenging is that the recession’s impact is not easily predictable. Jon Tupper, director of the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria and president of the Canadian Museums Association, says that in some cases, economic downturns lead to greater attendance. “When Canada first got involved in the Afghanistan war, there was a spike in attendance [at cultural institutions], a spike I noticed again at the beginning of this recession. People are really curious about what’s going on in society, and they have a tendency to use museums more when there’s [a crisis]. They’re either looking for a distraction, or for answers.”

The AGO and ROM appear to have been buffered to a degree by continued interest in their recent high-profile renovations—the dramatic Crystal addition at the ROM and Frank Gehry’s elegantly earthy redesign of the AGO. Membership levels at the AGO are at an all-time high, and last year the ROM had a record attendance of 1.1 million visitors. Still, both institutions have stepped up efforts to connect with potential audiences. “Museums aren’t the pontifical places that they used to be,” says Thorsell. “We’re now in a more reciprocal relationship with outside groups.” That means bucking the cutback trend and offering even more programming, like film nights, musical performances and splashier exhibitions.

“Now more than ever, people need a reason to step out,” adds Susan Bloch-Nevitte, the AGO’s director of public affairs. And she says that the draw is not just the work in the galleries anymore. “We are trying to get people to make a connection with art on any level, be it hands-on art in a children’s playroom area, art-inspired food in the [AGO’s] restaurant, or buying affordable jewelry and crafts in the gift shops.’”

While the ROM-AGO alliance is the most extensive collaboration between the two institutions to date, cultural partnerships aren’t new. Representatives from several major Toronto attractions meet regularly and team up for initiatives like discounted tourism packages. Collaboration is common in other cities, too, adds Silberberg. “With the recession, there’s a greater emphasis on value-added packaging,” like Winnipeg’s Winnipass, which offers discounted admission to attractions, including the Royal Canadian Mint and the Manitoba Museum. Joining forces can cut costs, too. In 2005, Silberberg’s firm helped develop the Cleveland Cultural Collaborative, a initiative by several of the city’s institutions to reduce expenditures by sharing staff and jointly purchasing supplies and services.

As for the ROM and AGO, their current collaboration seems to already be paying off. Patrick Dickinson, vice-president of marketing for the Bay, which is sponsoring Vanity Fair Portraits at the ROM, says, “On this particular sponsorship, even before the launch, the feedback from media, customers and related businesses has been excellent.” In the case of the AGO, institutional change as much as the recession will likely lead to more collaborations ahead. The Gehry redesign was “a big signpost for an overall shift to reach outside of the classic model of the museum vault,” says Paul Gilbert, the AGO’s interim director of marketing. “We want to become a more vital part of the community, and that includes working more closely with other institutions.”