Art Gallery of Alberta hopes continuing free admission will paint rosy future

The Art Gallery of Alberta is looking for a potential funding boost from the city again this year to continue letting people in for free.

Councillors will consider request for more money in its supplementary operating budget

The Art Gallery of Alberta at 2 Winston Churchill Square opened in 2010 at a cost of $88 million. (Natasha Riebe/CBC)

The Art Gallery of Alberta is looking for a potential funding boost from the city again this year to continue letting people in for free.

In 2017 and 2018, the AGA offered free admission to the general public on Tuesday and Wednesday nights from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. It also offered free admission at any time to people under age 18, as well as to all registered students. 

A report that went to council's executive committee on Monday shows the AGA had a spike in attendance in 2017 — up about 14 per cent from 2016, which was the highest since 2011. The city contributed $250,000 to make that happen. 

Catherine Crowston, executive director and chief curator, told the committee that letting people in at no charge has drawn the crowds. "We're seeing a definite shift of people choosing to come to the art gallery on the days we're offering free admission."

A drop in attendance in 2018 is attributed by the report to construction on the civic precinct, including the wading pool in front of city hall. 

This year, the gallery shifted the free admission promotion to Thursday evenings from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. and will continue to offer free admission to children, teens and Alberta students "for as long as possible," the report says.

Crowston said the gallery, which gets an operating budget of about $1.13 million a year from the city through the Edmonton Arts Council, is facing a revenue gap in 2019.

Offering free admission to people under age 18 is part of the reason, Crowston said.

"We lost a lot of our family memberships because a lot of families bought memberships really for the access for their children," she told the committee. "That had an impact on us, more than we anticipated."

A shallower wading pool in front of city hall is part of the civic precinct construction work that is currently underway. (City of Edmonton)

The committee directed city administration to draft a report outlining options in bridge funding for 2019.

Coun. Ben Henderson considers the art gallery a public amenity and supports the move, if they have the money.

"It's really encouraging to recognize a whole bunch of people may be able to go that just couldn't afford to before," he said Monday. 

However, other councillors, including Tony Caterina, questioned the AGA's future revenue expectations.

"Is there a plan going forward? Because I'm afraid you're probably going to be back here next year," Caterina asked. 

Crowston listed several ongoing sources of revenues — gift shop sales, art rentals, the AGA restaurant, corporate sponsorships and donations — and added the AGA gets an annual $640,000 grant from the Alberta Foundation for the Arts. The AGA is also looking for sponsors from "out in the world."

The gallery, which cost $88 million to build, opened in 2010 at 2 Sir Winston Churchill Square. The city contributed $21 million to its construction.

After five years of gradual declines, attendance at the AGA went up in 2017 when the gallery offered free admission on certain nights. (City of Edmonton)

Coun. Moe Banga also had questions about the free admission offer.

"Our free admission — is it producing, I guess, the needed bang for the buck?" Banga asked Crowston.

"[If] the bang that we're trying to make is impacting people's lives and allowing them access and creating learning opportunities, then I think there is the bang for the buck."

Administration is expected to present funding options in the supplemental operating budget at a council meeting on April 16.

The AGA also offered free public admission on five holidays: Family Day, National Indigenous Peoples Day, Canada Day and Alberta Culture Days weekend and free admission for public programs such as lectures, artists' talks, film screenings.

In select exhibitions, labels were translated into various languages including Arabic, French, Mandarin, Punjabi, Spanish, Michif, Cree, Ojibway and Tilcho, reflecting the first languages of the exhibiting artists, the report says.



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