Power Plant director Gaëtane Verna says “money is tight” for a lot of people right now. “For us, the incentive of wanting to be free is because we are interested in engaging a diversity of public and having no barrier for people to engage.”
Verna says that since free admission was implemented last year, the gallery has seen a 40 to 50 per cent boost to attendance, with around 60,000 people visiting in the past year. According to a gallery release, 77 per cent of these were first-time visitors.
There could be other factors boosting attendance as well. Shows last year included Christian Marclay’s The Clockand “Beat Nation: Art, Hip-Hop and Aboriginal Culture.” Front-of-house staff are now trained to engage visitors in different ways. And the gallery has a new curator of education and public programs, whose job it is to encourage engagement.
“Also one thing we have done is changed opening hours,” says Verna. “They used to be 12 to 6. Since last spring they have been 10 to 5,” which allows more school groups to attend the gallery, she says. “We are really interested in enabling as many students as possible to come here.”
Though Power Plant admission was far from expensive in early 2012—$6 for adults and $3 for students and seniors—Verna says that being free encourages repeat visits.
“I want people to have a habit of coming here,” she says.
The ethos of free also fits with the context of Harbourfront Centre, the waterfront complex within which the Power Plant is located. In fact, when the Power Plant opened in 1987, it was free to the public. Harbourfront’s other galleries have remained free, along with several other amenities. Also, from 2005 to 2011, the Power Plant offered free admission during the summer, when most residents and tourists visit the waterfront.
“My dream is that when people come [to Harbourfront] they can go skating at the rink and they can see an exhibition, or they can go canoeing and see an exhibition, or they can just come and see an exhibition. That’s the nature of the multidisciplinary space we are dealing with,” Verna says.
Verna also empasizes that free admission is only possible when a donor makes up for the lost revenue. In 2012/2013, that was the Hal Jackman Foundation, while BMO Financial Group has secured the free admission through 2016.
The Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art in Toronto is also free/pay-what-you-can, while general admission at the Art Gallery of Ontario—a much larger institution than the Power Plant and MOCCA, and a collecting one—is $19.50 most days of the week, with a free period happening each Wednesday from 6 to 8:30 p.m.