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News / May 9, 2019

Art Gallery of Ontario Launches $35 Annual Pass

Pilot project hopes to increase accessibility and make gallery-going a habit—but some members are unhappy about the way the new initiative is being rolled out
A view of the Art Gallery of Ontario from Grange Park. Photo: Facebook / AGO. A view of the Art Gallery of Ontario from Grange Park. Photo: Facebook / AGO.
A view of the Art Gallery of Ontario from Grange Park. Photo: Facebook / AGO. A view of the Art Gallery of Ontario from Grange Park. Photo: Facebook / AGO.

According to the World Bank, Canada is one of the 25 richest countries in the world. But it is also a country, CBC reports, where 46% of people have said they are $200 or less away from financial insolvency at month’s end.

That adds up to many different problems—including ones at Canada’s largest art galleries and museums.

Most of the large museums and art galleries in Canada charge fees of $15 to $20 for general entry, and have often said they depend upon this income to fund operations.

At the same time, these kinds of admission fees create a barrier to entry and engagement—a barrier that counters most galleries’ mandates to help the public understand arts and culture.

This month, the Art Gallery of Ontario is launching a pilot program to see if it can do better on these fronts: increasing public engagement while also responding to the economic pressures many Canadians are facing.

Under the new program, anyone will be able to buy a $35 annual pass to the AGO. And admission for people under 25 will be free.

“We were trying to think, How do we make the AGO a habit?” asks the gallery CEO.

“We were trying to think, How do we make the AGO a habit?” gallery CEO Stephan Jost tells Canadian Art. “If you pay $25 for a ticket, you feel you need to stay 2 to 3 hours, and we’re okay with that. But actually, there is something really great about coming to the museum for 30 minutes, and visit more often.”

The passes go on sale May 9 online, in person and over the phone. They will be effective starting on May 25—the same day the AGO’s new Kusama Infinity Room opens to the public.

In tandem on May 25, individual ticket prices for adults will be rising to $25 for both permanent collection and special exhibitions.

It’s an admissions and pass scheme similar to the one Jost introduced in his previous job as leader of the Honolulu Museum of Art in Hawaii—though he admits the AGO is “a different scale.”

Membership Retention Key to New Plan

Under the new pilot program at the AGO, the $35 pass gets access to the gallery only. It doesn’t include other member benefits like free coat check, discounts at the café and store or early access to exhibitions.

The business case Jost and his staff have put together for the pilot over the past two years relies on the presumption that most of the AGO’s 100,000 current members will opt to keep their $110-and-up memberships. It also estimates roughly 125,000 annual pass-holders will be added, but there is no increase in attendance projected.

The rationale the AGO is using is that existing members will retain higher-cost memberships due to the extra benefits and a sense of philanthropic goodwill.

But if existing membership starts to erode too much, says Jost, the low-cost pass is not likely to survive.

Some AGO Members Express Surprise, Concern

But some existing AGO members are already expressing concern about the way the pilot is being rolled out.

“This is a great initiative but since I renewed my membership 9 days ago, I wish I’d been told about this,” said Hazel Smith on Facebook. “I feel like free coat check does not = the $110 difference.”

“This is a great initiative but since I renewed my membership 9 days ago, I wish I’d been told about this,” said one member.

“As someone who has been purchasing a Contributing Membership for the past 10 or so years, wondering what my incentive is to ever purchasing one again,” Mark Beauchamp wrote on Facebook. “Seeing as I renewed it at the beginning of the year, feeling very ripped off and cheated right now. Free coat check does not make up the difference. Will you be offering refunds?”

At least one person under 25, who will now get in free to the gallery under the new plan, are also wondering about student memberships recently purchased for $45.

“If our members at $250 or higher drop to $35, we have a problem,” says Jost. “We will probably reassess 6 or 9 months from now to see.”

Many AGO members found out about the program late yesterday afternoon, the day before it hit the press. The communication came in the form of a mass email that announced the admission fee changes and tried to appeal toward membership retention and goodwill.

“With your support and generosity, the AGO is in a position to launch an innovative new admission model,” the email to members said. “Loyal members like you make this possible. We need you to continue your support and enjoy the benefits of membership… In doing so, we hope you take pride in knowing that you are helping us welcome more people to enjoy the AGO.”

“I’m under 25, a student and just recently renewed my student membership,” wrote Hilary Wilson on Instagram. “Do I get a refund? I’m confused.”

Others expressed ambivalence, indicating that some existing members had stretched their pocketbooks to secure access, and were not always in a position to be philanthropic.

Programming will be impacted as passholders change. “‘What would members like?’ Well, it depends who the members are,” says Jost.

“It’s nice that you guys are making the art gallery more accessible for everyone,” wrote user @sunflowercyn on Instagram. “But I think patrons who have bought different levels of membership are going to feel cheated. Many families buy family passes to the ROM, Science Centre, AGO or the Zoo. They don’t buy all the family passes—they choose, each year, one or two that they could afford and then next year choose different ones. We chose the AGO this year and now as a family feel like we have overpaid. You are assuming that families that have a bigger income can support families with a lower income. When in fact many of the families that I know juggle to make choices every day. I feel very conflicted right now.”

In contrast, several members did post support of the plan on social media: “I’ve been a member for years now and I’m thrilled with this new program,” Barb Panter wrote on Facebook. “I’m happy to support the AGO to make art more accessible for everyone.”

Others online said the pass was an exciting initiative but the purchase process wasn’t working correctly: “I used to be a member but couldn’t afford it anymore so I’m keen on this new $35 membership,” said Joanne Deane on Facebook. “I tried to buy one but I can’t finish the transaction. Tried multiple times?”

AGO CEO Stephan Jost says that he and his team anticipated the rollout of the new $35 could have some tough moments.

“The hard part will be the first 24 to 48 months,” says Jost, if the plan moves ahead. “Because you are switching models from a kind of one where you were always trying to move somebody up the membership ladder.”

How Will the Gallery Make Up for Lost Admissions Revenue?

So if membership does say steady, how will a $35 pass work for the gallery economically? Especially after so many years of Canadian galleries saying lower fees were impossible due to revenue needs?

For one, Jost says the new pass scheme will hopefully save money by lowering marketing costs at the gallery.

“To get the new passes, you have to give us your email address. And if we have your contact info, then our marketing spend per individual drops significantly,” says Jost.

When asked if the new pass scheme is also hoped to boost spending at the AGO’s cafes and shops, Jost admits that that is part of the revenue projection.

If membership erodes too much, the $35 pass won’t be sustainable, says Jost. The pilot will be re-evaluated in 6 to 9 months to see if it can move forward.

“Right now, when we have a special exhibition—like the ‘Impressionism in the Age of Industry’ show or the ‘Anthropocene’ show, everything does really well financially,” Jost says. “It’s when those shows close that you start to lose money in retail outlets and food outlets. What we are hoping with the annual pass is [revenue] will be distributed better over the course of the year.”

Another way that the annual pass program, if successful, might help to boost or stabilize revenues is in demonstrating to provincial-government funders that there is wide popular support for the AGO. Currently the AGO receives roughly a third of its budget from the province.

“I think the province is already aware of our membership,” says Jost, “but this time next year, we should be at 225,000 members and annual passholders—that’s a very demonstrable way to show Queen’s Park that Ontarians are engaged with the AGO.”

The AGO has also managed to raise $1.8 million in private philanthropy toward the program, including donations from BMO Financial Group, the Schulich Foundation and the Bennett Family Foundation, among others.

Need Is High, but Free Admission for All Not Viable, Contends CEO

In addition to the new free admission for those aged 25 years and younger, the AGO will continue to offer free passes through the Toronto Public Library, as well as free admission on Wednesday nights.

But Jost realized those initiatives alone were not enough, which is why there was a push internally for the new $35 pass.

“I’ve been a member for years now and I’m thrilled with this new program. I’m happy to support the AGO to make art more accessible for everyone,” said one member.

“What I really don’t like is that, essentially, if you were poor, we made you jump through extra hoops,” Jost says. “You had to go to the library to get the pass. You had to go to the gallery on only a certain evening.”

He says he likes that the $35 pass, which can be purchased online, allows users to come and go as they please, whenever works for them.

When asked why not make admission to the gallery free for all to the collection, and charge only for special exhibitions, as many UK museums do, Jost says there is too much risk in that case for complete collapse in memberships.

“We looked at that [free admission to the collection option] and it would cost us $12 to $14 million a year,” Jost contends. “Admission and memberships come out to $14 million—if you have free admission, memberships tend to collapse, so that’s where the risk is.”

New Passes Could End Up Changing Exhibitions and Programs

Risks aside, Jost says he is excited to see the new $35 pass program roll out—including taking a look at how the shift will effect programming and exhibition planning in future.

“It will inevitably change what we program,” Jost says of the low-cost pass program. “There is always the question, when we are planning, of ‘What would members like?’ Well, it depends who the members are.”

The pass could become something closer to a “subscription model for culture, like Netflix,” says Jost. And Netflix is also famously responsive to the viewer preference data it collects.

“I can’t tell you exactly how [programming] is going to change,” Jost says. “But audience does impact our decisions.”

Leah Sandals

Leah Sandals is news and special sections editor at Canadian Art. She has also written for the Toronto Star, National Post and Globe and Mail, among other publications. She welcomes tips, corrections and comments anytime at leah@canadianart.ca.