Sun Life pulling the plug on funding for library's popular free pass program

A popular Toronto Public Library program that's offered low-income families free access to museums and art galleries for the past 10 years is facing an uncertain future after its corporate sponsor announced it's pulling funding.

1.5 million have participated in MAP program's 10 year history

The Toronto Public Library's manager of stakeholder relations, Ana-Maria Critchley, shows one of the library's popular MAP passes. Funding for the program is scheduled to come to an end at the end of 2018. (Mike Smee/CBC News)

A popular Toronto Public Library program that's offered low-income families free access to museums and art galleries for the past 10 years is facing an uncertain future, after its corporate sponsor announced it's pulling funding.

The library's Museum and Arts Pass (MAP) was set up in 2007 and funded to the tune of about $200,000 annually by Sun Life Financial.

Originally, that money was used to offer free passes to low-income families in the city's poorest neighbourhoods. 

But it was so popular, the library gradually expanded the program's reach. It's now in place at all 100 branches, the library's manager of stakeholder relations, Ana-Maria Critchley, told CBC Toronto Wednesday.

The passes become available on Saturday mornings for a three-month loan period. Each pass entitles a family of two adults and up to five children free access to arts and cultural venues across the city — places like the Royal Ontario Museum, the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Aga Khan Museum and a dozen other sites.

Students perform at the Parkdale Branch of the Toronto Public Library last year. Sun Life says it will continue to fund the branch's musical instrument lending library. (Laura Thompson/CBC)

The program has become so popular that there are frequently lineups at library branches every Saturday morning, Critchley said. "Sometime you can have 10 or 20 people waiting before the library opens."

So far, the library estimates 1.5 million people have taken part in the program since it kicked off in 2007.

"And many of them wouldn't have otherwise had a chance to visit these amazing venues that our city has — the ROM, the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Aga Khan Museum," Critchley said.
  
But CBC Toronto has learned that late last week the company broke the news to library staff that the funding will end in 2018.

'No longer meets our criteria'

"We've refined our Making the Arts More Accessible program to focus on support of arts organizations with programs directed to people and families without the financial means to attend and enjoy arts performances, music schools and access instruments through the Sun Life Financial Musical Instrument Lending Library program," the company said in a statement Wednesday.

"The Museum + Arts Pass is a wonderful program but no longer meets our criteria."

Critchley said the TPL has no corporate sponsor waiting in the wings to keep the program going.

But she says she's confident one will come forward in the next year or so, before Sun Life's funding ends.

About the Author

Michael Smee

Reporter, CBC Toronto

Michael Smee has worked in print, radio, TV and online journalism for many years.