Canadian Heritage officials are warning new minister Mélanie Joly that Ottawa will need to spend tens of millions more on museums because most are in old buildings that require urgent repairs.
Briefing notes provided to the minister show that 77 per cent of the more than 1,500 museums and galleries in Canada are in buildings that are more than 35 years old and are in need of upgrades.
Meanwhile, the six national museums that fall directly under Ottawa's responsibility are underfunded by $20-million a year, which officials say is being covered by program-spending cuts.
The department's concerns are surfacing as the new government is raising expectations in Canada's museum community that new money is on its way.
Ms. Joly said on Tuesday that museum repairs are the type of projects the Liberals had in mind when they promised during the election campaign to spend $20-billion over 10 years on social infrastructure.
"We've talked a lot about investing in infrastructure in order to create growth in our economy and to create a stimulus. Well, that's exactly what we will be doing, and, of course, cultural infrastructure is part of our priorities," Ms. Joly said at an event launching a previously announced $110-million renovation of the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.
The NAC was built in 1969, and the renovation will replace many of its solid exterior walls with glass, giving it a more inviting look from Elgin Street near the National War Memorial. While it is not a museum, the price tag provides an idea of the cost to renovate a major cultural facility.
Ms. Joly said she is working with her department and cabinet colleagues on the infrastructure requests from cultural institutions.
The Liberals have yet to break down how the $20-billion social-infrastructure fund will be spent, but ministers have said it will also be used in areas such as child care and social housing.
The federal budget, which will likely be released in March, is expected to contain more details.
The six national museums the federal government is responsible for are the National Gallery of Canada, the Canadian Museum of Civilization, the Canadian Museum of Nature and the Canada Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa, as well as the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 in Halifax and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg.
Together, the six museums receive about $186-million annually. The human-rights museum opened less than two years ago, and the science museum is closed for an $80.5-million renovation the Conservative government announced in 2014.
Officials warn that finding money to maintain these buildings is a growing problem.
"These costs far exceed funding, eroding their program budgets and jeopardizing their financial sustainability," the officials say in the documents. "Unlike office buildings, iconic museum buildings are expected to endure in perpetuity, like the Parliament buildings."
The documents note that "depleted" budgets have led museums to reduce staff and spend less on exhibits, "creating a cycle where cuts to curation, collections, exhibits and programs attract fewer visitors, sponsors and donors."
According to Canadian Heritage, Canada has about 2,500 not-for-profit heritage institutions, including 1,309 museums, 477 historic sites, 364 archives, 206 art galleries and 107 zoos and botanical gardens. The federal programs available to them are relatively small.
A Canada Cultural Spaces Fund has a $30-million annual budget that funds about 85 renovation projects a year. The Museum Assistance Program, worth $18-million a year, includes components for summer jobs for students and grants to buy important cultural items. Only a fraction of that money can be used for renovations, and only $6.7-million is set aside for the exhibition costs of museums.
"That little program, that piddly amount of money, is supporting, potentially, some 2,000 museums across the country," said John McAvity, executive director of the Canadian Museums Association. "It's an inadequate amount of money to fund the museums across Canada," he said.
Mr. McAvity noted that his organization received a positive reception on Parliament Hill in late January for a two-day lobbying blitz.
The Canadian Museums Association praised a recent speech Ms. Joly made to members during their visit to Parliament Hill as "magic to our ears," raising expectations of new money in the budget.
"We are following that very carefully and really looking for what's going to happen in the federal budget," Mr. McAvity said.