Not your 'grandmother's museum': How Canada's major art galleries are chasing youth

In the age of Instagram and Fortnite, galleries and museums are fighting for attention — and revenue. Here is a look at the bold steps several Canadian institutions are taking to attract new audiences.

More institutions are offering free admission, late-night parties to get the next generation through the door

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts presents monthly Chiaroscuro Evenings to appeal to young adults so they don't feel like it's their 'grandmother's museum,' according to director of communications Pascale Chassé. (Frédéric Faddoul)

Late-night, glow-in-the-dark painting sessions. Dance parties. Trendy food and drink stations. Intimate live performances. Hip-hop concerts. Social media stars dropping by. 

This ain't your parents' museum.

Major art galleries and museums are pulling out all the stops to inspire young adults to visit, from diversifying the type of art that's displayed, to turning galleries into party hot spots, to dropping prices all the way to free. 

Take Montreal's Museum of Fine Arts, for instance, which has used a host of techniques to welcome in new audiences.

Chiaroscuro Evenings, designed to attract visitors aged 30 and under, transforms the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts once a month on Friday nights. (Frédéric Faddoul/Montreal Museum of Fine Arts)

The MMFA offers free admission for visitors 20 and under. It also has almost 10,000 "Avant-garde VIP" members who are 30 and under and pay $35 a year for unlimited access to the museum as well as free admission to its Chiaroscuro Evenings, a monthly event designed to "give another spirit to the museum experience," according to Pascale Chassé, the MMFA's director of communications.

These events take place on the last Friday of the month (except in the summer and on Christmas) and include live music, DJs, food stations, a cash bar and dancing until 1 a.m.

"Those people that are 30 years old and less want to have different experience [when they] visit the museum and they want to feel that this experience is for them," Chassé said.

"The people around them are the same age ... So they feel that it's the place to be — but also that it's their place, not grandmother's museum."

The museum has also diversified its exhibitions. One example is the retrospective of fashion designer Thierry Mugler. Reality TV and social media star Kim Kardashian walked the red carpet for that exhibition's opening in February.

Chassé said the exhibit, Thierry Mugler: Couturissime, is bringing in an audience that doesn't normally come to the museum.

Similar moves are being made in Toronto, where another of Canada's biggest art galleries is shaking things up. Last week, the Art Gallery of Ontario announced a plan to offer an unlimited annual pass for $35, as well as free admission for anyone 25 and under.

A dance performance at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. (Art Gallery of Ontario)

"We want to make sure that people are engaged in their 20s," said CEO Stephan Jost, "because we're pretty sure if you come in your early 20s, you'll come in your early 50s and you'll come in your early 80s."

To mark the changes, which take effect May 25, the AGO is introducing an all-ages, all-day event three times a year. The first AGO All Hours will be May 25 from 10:30 a.m. to 1 a.m., featuring family activities during the day and then concerts, DJs, performances and drinks in the evening. It replaces the AGO's First Thursdays, a series held monthly for the past six years that has offered nighttime activities to attract a younger crowd.

Visitors take in an artistic performance as part of the late-night event FUSE: Gestures at the Vancouver Art Gallery. (Pardeep Singh/Vancouver Art Gallery)

Similar late-night events take place at museums such as the Vancouver Art Gallery, which has held its FUSE adults-only art parties — complete with artist performances, live music and dance — for several years.

Jost said the AGO's biggest demographic is already people between 20 and 30, but he wants even more millennials to spend time in the gallery.

Aiming high for attendance

Overall, AGO attendance was approximately one million visitors last year. Canada's most popular museum was the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, which had an attendance of 1.34 million.

For Gail Lord, those numbers could definitely be higher. The international museum consultant points out that the ROM had about a million visitors annually back in the late 1980s, when the city's population was far less.

She thinks Canada's biggest art institutions, including the AGO, should be aiming for two to three million visitors a year.

Gail Lord, president of museum consultancy Lord Cultural Resources, says making admission free to museums and galleries like the AGO needs to be tried out for more than a year since 'you don't change human behaviour in one year.' (Nigel Hunt/CBC)

Dropping admission costs and shaking up programming with offerings relevant to a variety of groups are moves in the right direction, she said.

"The evidence is clear that when you improve your product, when you're relevant and when you're free or low cost, your attendance will increase by 30 to 50 per cent in time."

The AGO has said its new pricing is a one-year pilot project underwritten by extra fundraising, but Lord says it could take longer than that to see the full potential increase in attendance.

She points to Britain's Tate museums in London as a success story. They have increased attendance and accessibility to different segments of society and earned more overall revenue after they made general admission free.

Admission fees typically account for only 10 per cent of total revenue for museums, so Lord doesn't feel free entry is a big risk.

"Earned income is always relative to attendance," she said. "If you have nobody coming, why would anybody want to sponsor anything?"

The Vancouver Art Gallery is one of several large art museums in Canada that has regular late-night events to draw in a younger crowd. (Pardeep Singh/Vancouver Art Gallery)

She also understands the need for major art institutions to court youth.

"Every sector of the economy wants young people because they represent 40, 50, 60, 70 years of being the consumer of that product — in this case, being consumers of art and our art galleries and museums."

She says events that draw young adults to a night out at the museum make sense — and dollars. 

"The idea that you can go to a museum and have a good time is actually really important."


Nigel Hunt

Arts producer

Nigel Hunt is a longtime CBC News producer covering the arts beat. Previously, he served as a magazine writer and editor.

with files from Eli Glasner and Jessica Wong