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The Globe and Mail

Crystal mistakes at ROM point to limits of philanthropy

The interior of the crystal facade is pictured at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto on Sunday, Feb. 15, 2015.

Matthew Sherwood/The Globe and Mail

North America's fundraisers were meeting in Baltimore this week to discuss their mysterious profession. How do you get rich people to give large sums to charities, anyway? According to research released at the Association of Professional Fundraisers convention, philanthropy is slowly recovering from the financial hardships of 2008-2009: About two-thirds of non-profits reported they raised more money in 2014 than in 2013, posting their best year since 2010. The Canadian charities in the group were also doing better, but still they were less likely than their American cousins to have met their fundraising targets and less likely to have raised more money than the previous year.

Canadian philanthropy has always lagged behind American, partly because this country is less wealthy and partly because it has a weaker tradition of using private money to create public good. Deep-pocketed American philanthropists are often held up as the model to emulate but, last week, a Globe and Mail investigation into outstanding pledges made to the Royal Ontario Museum's building campaign a decade ago revealed the dangers of relying on the private sector: My colleagues and I found that the ROM was still owed $23-million in unpaid pledges on a renovation and expansion that opened in 2007. Those pledges, much touted as "gifts received," plus another $10-million that was never raised, account for the $33.3-million the museum still owes the province for Renaissance ROM, as the project was called.

Payments on the government loan have placed a real financial hardship on the museum at a time when it can ill afford it: The business plan for the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal expansion assumed big increases in ticket sales that also failed to materialize.

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Renaissance ROM was predicated on the so-called Bilbao effect, named for the way the Guggenheim Museum building, designed by architect Frank Gehry, put that small Spanish city on the international cultural map when it opened in 1997. Attendance at the ROM had been stagnating in the 1990s and supporters predicted that, with the splashy new Crystal to show off, they could start matching the average attendance achieved in U.S. cities such as Chicago, and also charge a hefty new ticket price to these bigger crowds.

In the end, the skeptics – and there were many at the time who suspected the predictions were only wishful thinking – proved right.

Attendance now averages a million visits a year, well short of the 1.4 million to 1.6 million that had been predicted in the Renaissance ROM years. In 2011, the ROM finally admitted this wasn't working and lowered the price of admission, which now stands at $16.

What both Torontonians and tourists seemed to resist was an upmarket commercialization of the venerable old museum that holds the largest collection of artifacts in Canada. The relocation of the museum's entrance from the institutional Queen's Park to the commercial Bloor Street was heavily symbolic, and if visitors have always seemed happy with the large new ground-floor gift shop, one of the smaller but telling failures in revenue generation was that of the swank restaurant known as C5.

The restaurant was located at the tippy top of the Crystal and, once diners had reached it by means of its own private elevator, they were treated to $100 meals and spectacular views of the city. C5 survived the recession but as fine dining took a turn toward the more casual in the late 2000s, it became a white elephant – a big, expensive room missing that all-important presence on the street below. The food company that ran it pulled out in 2013 and, so far, no one has stepped up to take over the contract.

Museums are expensive places to run because of the large infrastructure and deep expertise required to be careful custodians of the millions of objects in their collections. We ask a lot of them, demanding they play the alternating roles of entertainer, babysitter and scholar, requiring they explore those bits of our culture that interest us presently while never abandoning the bits that might interest us later. In today's ROM, for example, galleries devoted to dinosaurs, biodiversity or gems and minerals are always bustling, but you can usually count on some peace and quiet in the European decorative arts or the internationally renowned Chinese collection that was once considered the museum's greatest asset. That doesn't mean the ROM can start selling off the suits of armour or Ming vases.

All this wonderful stuff is our collective culture, and the lesson from the ROM expansion is how hard it is to get commercial interests, whether they are philanthropic industrialists or well-heeled gourmets, to pay for what is, after all, a public mandate. Penny-pinching taxpayers and budget-cutting governments may think they have successfully transferred the bill to others, but in the end the public shoulders the costs: Today, the Ontario government holds the debt left over from a project to which it was already the single largest contributor.

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You can still rent C5 for your wedding, but that multimillion-dollar room, one of the few spectacular ones in the often unfriendly Crystal, mainly sits empty, its views of the city unadmired. It's both a sad waste of a public space and an object lesson on the limits of what private money can build.

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