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Anyone aged 18 to 25 can get free admission by signing up for an annual pass – so that the AGO can record e-mail and street addresses – and those 14 to 18 can also get a pass if they want.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The Art Gallery of Ontario has lured 70,000 teens and young adults through its doors since it began offering them free admission last May. The gallery announced Tuesday that its pilot project providing free admission for youth and cheap annual passes for adults will now become permanent after a strong response from those aged 14 to 25.

“It’s nothing short of transformational for us. We are getting 600 people a day joining the AGO,” director Stephan Jost said. “This is way beyond what we expected.”

Under the scheme, anyone under 18 can enter the gallery with no admission charge by showing identification. Anyone aged 18 to 25 can get free admission by signing up for an annual pass – so that the AGO can record e-mail and street addresses – and those 14 to 18 can also get a pass if they want. Adults older than 25 can pay for a $35 annual pass, which includes special exhibitions – or continue to buy single tickets at $25.

AGO gambles on attracting new audiences with $35 annual pass and free admission for those 25 and under

The program, underwritten by Bank of Montreal and several private foundations, has proved highly popular. More than 100,000 people have signed up for passes, 70,000 of whom are aged 14 to 25. Fears that the scheme might cannibalize the AGO’s membership program – the gallery’s 100,000 members pay at least $110 annually for their right to free admission – have not been realized as only 1 per cent of the new $35 pass holders were previously members.

“Membership has held very firm,” Jost said. “Turns out members really like the free coat check, the members’ lounge and the members’ previews.” He added that members also like the idea their contribution is philanthropic and that the gallery is doing the right thing for youth.

The program is intended to encourage youth engagement, build long-term audiences and reach out to adults on tight budgets thereby expanding the demographic the AGO serves. Jost has estimated it would cost the gallery $14-million a year in extra funding to simply make the AGO free to everyone, not only because of the lost box-office revenue but also because members could then be expected to fall away.

Admission is always free to everyone at the National Gallery in London and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, but Jost says the model poses some problems. It allows visitors to enter the gallery anonymously without the kind of educational and marketing contact the AGO can make through regular e-mail communication. Postal codes from the new passes are allowing the gallery to assemble more demographic information about visitors, with the hope that there is a rising number of new immigrants and people who live in the 905 suburbs coming to the AGO.

Part of the point of the AGO’s free pass is to make contact with youths rather than simply ushering them through the door, as was the practice on the gallery’s free Wednesday nights.

“The under 25 crowd, many of them came before on free Wednesdays. Now we know who they are, we can communicate with them,” Jost said. “The good intention of free Wednesdays made young people invisible to us.”

There are approximately one million people aged 14-25 in the Greater Toronto Area, of which the AGO is now reaching 7 per cent. Jost acknowledges the numbers may plateau as the free program reaches a saturation point but said he would expect to hit at least 100,000 or 10 per cent of the GTA’s teens and young adults.

The next test for the program will occur in 2020 when 20,000 25-year-olds age out of the free category. The AGO will be watching closely to see whether they sign up for the $35 option.

Editor’s note: (Nov. 26, 2019) An earlier version of this article incorrectly said single tickets cost $19.50. This version has been updated.