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If you asked Canadians what arts experience they most value, what would they say?

The insurance company Sun Life Financial did just that and a clear answer came back from a poll of 2,500 citizens: music education. It's not a surprising response, considering how central music is to many lives and the way music programs in schools have been cut. That's why Sun Life's philanthropy arm is underwriting a national expansion of an instrument-lending program currently run out of Toronto's Parkdale Library. Need a violin? Bongos? In six Canadian cities, local libraries will be able to help with loans of up to nine weeks.

So, that's the good news. The not-so-good news is that, as of 2019, Sun Life will stop funding the museum pass program at the Toronto Public Library (TPL). Under that program, you can get a three-month loan of a free pass for one of 17 different museums and cultural centres including the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Royal Ontario Museum, the Aga Khan Museum, the Ontario Science Centre and the Toronto Zoo.

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No need to panic: Sun Life has given the TPL a year's notice to find new money after its current contract with the library expires. And there has been so much media coverage of Sun Life's withdrawal, the library says it shouldn't have a problem finding a new corporate partner to pick up the program.

If the media has been banging the drum for the TPL, it's because the museum pass program is highly popular. Inspired by a similar program in Chicago, it was the initiative of former Toronto mayor David Miller and the AGO. When it started in 2007, the program targeted the so-called "priority neighbourhoods," low-income areas where resources are few, job opportunities are scarce and drop-out rates are high, but it now operates out of every branch.

The TPL has lent out 800,000 passes in the past decade and the AGO records that in 2016-17 alone, it welcomed 20,000 visitors using passes borrowed from the TPL. The AGO lets those visitors in free, the way it would with any regular member, while Sun Life covers the program's $200,000 annual administrative costs for the library.

The passes come available Saturdays on a first-come, first-served basis and it's common to see lineups at local libraries as people compete to get them – as well as those polite Saturday afternoon signs saying sorry, all the passes are gone. This year, TPL started a pilot program that extended the pass idea to the performing arts, with 10 branches offering passes that allow the holder three months to buy pairs of tickets for performances at Canadian Stage, Factory Theatre, Harbourfront Centre, Hot Docs Cinema, Tafelmusik and the Royal Conservatory of Music.

At the AGO, administrators figure the library passes draw all sorts of new visitors to the gallery but can't really say if any of those people would have come otherwise. In an e-mail, Herman Lo, the gallery's director of visitor experience, says the AGO doesn't price the program as a cost, but just views it as part of its outreach to the community.

In cold hard cash, it costs $19.50 for one adult admission to the AGO; a family membership that will get two adults and several kids in free for a year is $145. Clearly, the main point of the library program is access for anyone who feels they can't afford the admission.

Along with free nights at many of the same institutions, the pass program stands out as a beacon, a practical way of making nice talk about accessibility in the arts a living reality.

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It is challenging to draw people to arts institutions these days; contemporary audiences are distracted and busy. The performing arts in particular are facing declining attendance, but arts administrators in every institution are on the lookout for ideas that will bring new bodies through their doors: Nobody can afford to ignore any segment of the community. Differing tastes and busy schedules may stop people from visiting public museums and galleries; money never should.

Editor’s note: This story has been amended to remove an incorrect reference to a similar museum pass program in Calgary which has secure funding until September, 2018.
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