AGO to keep free entry for 25 and under, $35 annual pass

Six months into a pilot project changing its admission prices, the Art Gallery of Ontario has decided to go all-in.

Gallery has signed up close to 104,000 new passholders, including nearly 73,000 under the age of 26

A strong response from young visitors has prompted the Art Gallery of Ontario to make its admission pricing pilot project — offering free entry for those 25 and under, plus a $35 annual pass for those 26 and older — a permanent change. (Art Gallery of Ontario)

Six months into a pilot project changing its admission prices, the Art Gallery of Ontario has decided to go all-in.

The Toronto gallery announced Tuesday that its AGO Annual Pass program, introduced in May and originally slated to last one year as a test project, is here to stay. 

The program offers free admission to all visitors 17 and under. Those aged 18-25 receive free entry by signing up for an annual pass (and sharing their email and postal address with the gallery). Visitors 26 and over can either pay $25 for one-time entry or buy a $35 pass, granting unlimited admission for a full year.

Since the springtime launch, the AGO says it's had 103,955 people sign up as annual passholders. Visitors between the ages of 14 and 25 account for 72,940 of the newcomers, the gallery noted in a statement.

The admission change makes the gallery more accessible for young people juggling tuition fees and other costs, according to student Sarina Grewal, who says she's been visiting the AGO since she was a kid.

"Now when I want to come, I can just come. I don't have to consider my bank account or where I'm at right now. I can just come and enjoy it," she said Tuesday.

Free entry reduces barriers for curious audiences, said Joseph Phan, who had just arrived for his first-ever visit. 

"I think it's a really good idea, especially for people who are kind of interested in the arts, but never really had the opportunity [to visit] because of financial differences. To be able to offer this tourist spot for free is a really good opportunity for kids to come in and just see what kind of [art] Toronto has to offer. Something like that can go a long way," he said.

The admission policy change put the AGO in the company of Canadian galleries who offer free entry to young visitors, including the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and the Art Gallery of Alberta in Edmonton.

Dancers participate in a youth-oriented event at the Art Gallery of Ontario. (Art Gallery of Ontario)

Reaching out to donors

The art museum had initially secured $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 — to run the one-year admission change experiment. 

Going forward, the AGO will be reaching out to corporations, individuals and foundations in order to secure multi-year funding to continue the pricing structure, gallery CEO Stephan Jost said Tuesday afternoon.

He estimated that, roughly speaking, the initiative will cost about $800,000 a year to run.

Another major moment to watch for happens a year from now, he added. 

"We're projecting to have 20,000 people who are 25 years old [sign up for the free annual pass] within this first year. The question is going to be: how many are going to convert from free to paid?"

Aiming for the next generation

Some had wondered if the new admission pricing would upset the AGO's existing members, who pay a yearly fee (upwards of $45 for students and $110 for individual adults) to gain unlimited admission as well as perks such as free coat check, gift shop discounts and early access to new exhibitions, art classes and more.

However, two members visiting on Tuesday afternoon said this latest boost of new patrons was definitely needed.

"In the restaurant, they were just commenting about how many people [visiting] were grey-haired. So you need to do something that kind of pulls in the next generation of people into the art gallery," said Jack Holland.

"Absolutely, yes," added Joan Holland. "There's an aging audience. We need to do something to get the next generation interested."

The gallery noted Tuesday that its traditional membership of about 100,000 patrons has remained steady over the past five fiscal years. 

Only about one per cent of the new passholders are former members who've downgraded to the $35 annual pass, Jost said.

With files from Jelena Adzic


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