As Canadian museums labour to attract new audiences and improve access, the Art Gallery of Ontario is taking a bold gamble and slashing ticket prices. As of May 25, everyone 25 and under will be able to visit the Toronto institution free while older adults will be offered an annual pass for only $35. Also, there will be no extra charge for special exhibitions.
“There is a big risk in doing it; there are huge unknowns,” AGO director Stephan Jost said in a recent interview. “We are technically doing it for a year, in case we lose our shirts. We have pushed that $35 as low as we can go.”
Jost, who arrived at the AGO in 2016, has been working on the idea for two years in a bid to reach a larger constituency and expand the popularity of the gallery’s free Wednesday evenings to the entire week. His plan requires a financial balancing act – private philanthropists and corporate donors are contributing $1.8-million to support the first experimental year – and occurs at a time when art museums are particularly concerned with reaching new audiences. Both social responsibility and financial imperative are pushing the museums to find ways to further engage occasional visitors or reach people who don’t visit.
Jost’s philosophy is that tiered pricing models, in which visitors who pay more get more, are wrong-headed. He believes that the free admissions and the $35 pass will enable the gallery to build long-term relationships with a wider audience by encouraging youths and adults on a budget to make repeat visits.
The AGO currently reports almost one million admissions a year, which translates to about 500,000 individuals (since many people go more than once). Of that number, 100,000 are members who the gallery can reach by e-mail or phone, but the other 400,000 are anonymous: Part of the plan is to make contact with those people and bring them back. Those under 18 will be able to walk into the AGO any time, but those between 18 and 25 will be asked to register for a free annual pass, while older adults will also register for their $35 option. (Currently, an individual adult ticket to the AGO costs $19.50, or $25 if you include both the permanent collection and special exhibitions.)
The first question the plan raises is whether the $35 pass will cannibalize memberships: An annual membership priced at $110 for an individual and $145 for a couple or family gets you free admission to all exhibitions all year. The AGO knows some members will now opt for the $35 pass instead, even though it won’t include the free coat check and discounts in the gallery shop that a membership does.
“If all the $110 people drop to $35, we have a problem,” Jost said, adding: “We have told the board: Everyone knows the risks and they are real. But the flip argument is that not engaging new communities and not engaging people who can’t afford a $100 membership is a much bigger risk in the long run.” (He added that it would cost about $14-million a year in extra funding to simply make the AGO free to everyone, a model used by the National Gallery in London and the National Gallery in Washington.)
The AGO will start selling the annual passes online May 9, and will celebrate the launch of the new pricing on May 25 with an open house offering art classes, pop-up artist talks, music and food from morning to evening. The AGO All Hours event will be repeated three times a year.
The pricing change is the second part of an accessibility plan that has also involved changing programming at the gallery: AGO solo shows for contemporary artists now mainly feature women, including Yayoi Kusama, Rebecca Belmore, Mickalene Thomas and Vija Celmins. The gallery has also given much greater prominence to Indigenous artists with major exhibitions devoted to Belmore, Inuit artists Kenojuak Ashevak and Tim Pitsiulak and a coming show for Brian Jungen, a British Columbia artist whose sculptures fashion Indigenous art forms from popular sports gear including running shoes and hockey equipment. Previously, the gallery would have been more likely to feature all these artists in group shows or smaller solo shows, Jost said.
The change in content – as well as crowd-pleasing shows such as the one devoted to filmmaker Guillermo del Toro or the recent Impressionism exhibition – seem popular: AGO attendance has risen in the past two years. The next year will show whether the $35 pass proves so attractive its numbers outweigh a loss of members or $25 ticket buyers. Jost estimates that in the future only tourists will be interested in buying a single ticket to the gallery.
There is strong evidence that price is a barrier for many potential gallery-goers. The AGO’s free Wednesday evenings draw crowds that are large, young and culturally diverse. When Jost approaches these visitors and asks why they are at the gallery, the answer is always the same: “Because it’s free.”