Art Gallery of Alberta looks to improve access and diversity of audience

The Art Gallery of Alberta is looking at a variety of ways to entice more visitors to buoy sinking attendance figures, says the gallery's executive director.

Gallery re-examining hours, admissions, exhibits and sponsorships

The Art Gallery of Alberta opened its new $88 million building only five years ago. Since then the gallery’s operating costs have more than doubled, even as attendance tapered off. (CBC)

The Art Gallery of Alberta is looking at a variety of ways to entice more visitors to buoy sinking attendance figures, says gallery executive director Catherine Crowston.

On Monday, CBC News reported on the feasibility of the gallery's plan to offer free admission in the future.

Dropping the admission fees is just one of the ideas under consideration to help improve attendance and the overall visitor experience, said Crowston Tuesday.

Other ideas include adding more hands-on activities, new interpretive programs and audio tours.
Art gallery executive director Catherine Crowston says admissions are a small part of what the AGA takes in annually. (CBC)

"What we're trying to do is increase access and increase the diversity of our audiences and increase the numbers of people that benefit from the Art Gallery of Alberta," she said.

The gallery will also be reviewing the exhibits it runs. In past years, the gallery found success with its higher-profile Warhol and Matisse exhibits, Crowston said.

"We do know that when we're able to bring in those wonderful exhibitions, that that does reach out to people, that people feel a connection because they understand and know the artist already.

"But we also know that people are very supportive of Edmonton artists, that the community supports its own."

The gallery is also considering expanding its hours on evenings and weekends to make it more accessible for those who work during the day, she added.

Argument for free admission

According to Crowston, paid admission accounts for only a modest share of revenue compared to the gallery's member visits, facility rentals, the school-tour program and other ways people access the facility.

"Admission is a small component of what we make on an annual basis," she said. "It's probably about $300,000 on a $6 or $7 million budget."

The gallery already hosts free events, including free Thursday nights, which are sponsored by various corporations.

During those times when admission is waived, the gallery does see a spike in numbers, reported Crowston.

"I think what the fee does is it becomes a barrier for those people who might not be sure that they want to go."

Should admission fees be dropped entirely, Crowston said at least some of that revenue loss could be covered by an increase in corporate sponsorship and philanthropy — something she is optimistic about since the gallery just experienced its highest corporate sponsorship in its 90-year history.

Simply getting more bodies through the door could also improve revenue earned in the gallery's shops and restaurant, she added.

At the moment, the AGA gift shop is projected to end the year with a $30,000 loss. Under the new strategy, the gallery hopes to see admissions quadruple by 2020, and anticipates gift store profits to rise to more than $150,000 as a result.

Museum officials are currently working on new funding models to make free admission feasible, Crowston said.

She was not able to estimate when free admission could go into effect. Crowston said more study is needed to determine how free admission would work if the museum's hours are changed or if new sponsorships or investments are found. 

"What we're looking at is, 'What's a model that could be sustainable for the future?' " Crowston said. "And we don't really have the answer for that, but that's something we're going to be working on throughout this year."


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