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Making the AGO a habit: Art gallery makes admission free for 25 and under

The Art Gallery of Ontario, one of North America's largest galleries, hopes to entice more visitors to become regulars by changing its admission fees, including dropping them altogether for those 25 and under.

Toronto gallery also testing out $35 unlimited-admission annual pass

The Art Gallery of Ontario is making major changes to its admission fees, dropping them completely for those under 25 and introducing a $35 annual pass. (CBC)

When Stephan Jost first arrived to head the Art Gallery of Ontario, he made a point of taking a walkabout during one of the Toronto gallery's well-attended free-admission nights.

"I walked down the line and [asked], 'Why are you here?' And they looked at me like I'm an idiot. They're like: 'It's free,'" Jost, the gallery's CEO, told CBC News.

"Right there, you know that our price point is prohibitive for a certain segment of the community." 

Now, three years later, he's hoping to convince more visitors to become AGO regulars by changing or eliminating admission fees.

Beginning May 25, the gallery will offer free admission for all visitors 25 and under. For visitors over that, a new $35 pass will get them unlimited admission (including entry to special exhibitions) for one year.

The gallery is also doing away with its current dual-priced general admission ticket, which requires you to pay more if you want to see special exhibits in addition to the permanent collection. In future, there will be one price ($25) to see everything.

The gallery has raised $1.8 million through private donors for the new admission fee initiative, says Stephan Jost, CEO of the Art Gallery of Ontario. (Nigel Hunt/CBC)

The decision to nix admission fees for young people puts the AGO in the company of Canadian galleries like the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, which is free to visitors under 21, and the Art Gallery of Alberta in Edmonton, which is free for visitors 17 and under, as well as post-secondary students in the province.

"We've looked at a lot of different programs," Jost said. "We're testing it for a year and we'll tell you if it worked or not."

The museum has raised $1.8 million from individual and corporate donors — including $200,000 US from an anonymous American company as well as sponsorship from the Bank of Montreal — for the initiative, he said.

Traditional AGO annual memberships will remain the same. Beginning at $45 for students and $110 for individual adults, memberships go beyond admission alone to include perks such as free coat check, gift shop discounts, access to a special lounge and sneak peeks at new exhibitions.

Making the AGO a habit

Along with making it accessible to people "regardless of socioeconomic background," the gallery is also eager to attract visitors in their late teens and early 20s.

According to Jost, out of the roughly one million visits to the gallery every year, the biggest age group is 20 to 30, making up 28 per cent of total adult visitors. Most attend on free admission nights, and are attracted by recent special exhibits such as Mickalene Thomas: Femmes Noires, Anthropocene, and Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors.

Exhibits like Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors have attracted many visitors between the ages of 20 and 30. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

"We know that people form their cultural choices for their life in their late teens and early 20s," Jost said.

"We want the AGO to be a habit. We want it just to be part of your normal life."

To help kick off the new admission policies, the AGO has planned three all-day celebrations. The first takes place on May 25, when the gallery will host a slate of participatory art activities and experiences for all ages from mid-morning until the wee hours. Events and workshops will include making raccoon shadow puppets, outdoor drawing lessons, pop-up musical performances, artist talks, a DJ dance party, and a concert by Polaris Prize-nominated Zaki Ibrahim.

A man draws in Grange Park, located behind the AGO. The gallery will kick off its new admission model with a daylong 'block party' that will include concerts, pop-up artist talks, kids' programming and art experiences like drawing in the park. (Hannah Yoon/Canadian Press)

Subsequent all-day events will take place in October and January.

There's value to be had in a terrific DJ, as much as in a painting by the 16th-century Venetian artist Tintoretto, said Jost.

"We're committed to great art," he said. "I don't care if it's performance art or a DJ … That's how I look at it."

With files from Eli Glasner and Nigel Hunt.

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