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The MMFA’s From Van Gogh to Kandinsky exhibit helped to make the institution Canada’s most-visited arts museum last year.Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

Apologies for the invidious comparison, but Montreal has outstripped Toronto on an important measure of cultural success.

For the second year in a row, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts can claim to be the most-visited art museum in Canada, beating out both the Royal Ontario Museum and the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Slightly more than one million people visited the MMFA in 2014, making it the 58th most popular art museum in the world and the 12th most popular in North America. That is the conclusion of researchers at The Art Newspaper, which recently released its annual survey of global museum attendance.

There are only two other Canadian institutions on the list: the ROM at No. 62 with 934,384 visitors and the AGO at No. 80 with 757,462, both of them located in Toronto, which has a population about 50-per-cent bigger than Montreal.

Actually, it's the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que., that can usually claim to be the most-visited museum in Canada; it received 1,016,030 visitors in 2014-2015, beating Montreal's 1,009,648 by a hair. It's not included on the list because it's not considered an art museum, although it has an impressive collection of historic First Nations material most people would consider art, while the ROM specializes in the natural sciences as much as it does the decorative arts.

Definitions of "art museum" aside, these numbers do confirm suspicions that Toronto is underperforming when it comes to engaging both its own citizens and tourists in museum culture. Museum consultant Gail Lord was saying as much last week as she launched her new book, Cities, Museums and Soft Power, at the Gardiner Museum in Toronto.

Co-authored with Ngaire Blankenberg, the book argues that museums are a great tool with which cities can exercise influence. While countries may rely on their hard power – military and economic might – cities seduce and cajole using culture and education.

I recently asked Lord what she thought Montreal was doing right and her answer was that the museum had a decades-long track record of highly attractive international exhibitions that had helped build a new museum-going habit for Montrealers, and were also successfully marketed outside the city.

Most recently, it was a Warhol show; last year, it was Fabergé and from Van Gogh to Kandinsky. In comparison, Lord felt programming at the AGO and ROM was more erratic in its appeal to locals and tourists.

You'll note she didn't say, "Oh, Montreal built this fabulous new building by an internationally renowned architect," although the MMFA did undertake major renovations in 1991 and 2011.

Montrealers, long confident that theirs was the more culturally dynamic city, were somewhat spooked by the big cultural build-outs in Toronto in the 2000s: Did Toronto know something Montreal didn't?

But in the end, bricks and mortar will only get you so far. It's what's inside that counts and both the ROM and the AGO have struggled to achieve the numbers that might seem warranted by their lavish renovations, which opened in 2007 and 2008. The ROM's new Crystal never produced the 1.4 million visitors that were predicted, with attendance clocking in around 950,000 most years, while the AGO, which was much more conservative in its predictions and usually attracts around 750,000, has experienced some nice spikes but also some nasty drops, largely depending on the exhibitions.

"Numbers matter," Lord said of the focus on attendance. "Of course, the quality of the exhibitions matters, but people matter."

To be fair here, you might want to consider whether Montreal's numbers are higher because it has one large museum, not two, and also note that many institutions that offer physical culture, whether in the performing arts or the museum sector, are struggling to attract the citizens of a virtual age.

That's where Lord's and Blankenberg's vision gets interesting, because they see museums as so much more than exhibitors of things, or even as educators of people. They view the museum as a kind of commons that can play a role in advancing civic diversity, urban renewal and public debate. They list 32 ways museums can awaken this soft power and No. 8 might be one for Toronto to consider: free admission.

Internationally, many museums are moving in this direction, asking the public to pay only for special exhibitions. The museums usually see great increases in attendance under these schemes and while they lose ticket revenue, they make some of the money back on increased sales at their cafés and gift shops. (As someone who dropped more than $100 on impulse buys at the British Museum's gift shop last year after paying nothing to visit the collection, I can attest to the phenomenon.)

Both the AGO and ROM do offer various concessions – the AGO is free Wednesday evenings while the ROM offers free admission to students on Tuesdays and discounts to everybody Friday evenings – but here again, Montreal is the national leader.

Entrance to the MMFA is free to anyone under 30 any time, to over 65s on Thursdays, to the general public the last Sunday of every month and during the Christmas and March break holidays.

Of course, Montrealers love their museum – especially when they don't have to pay visit it.

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