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 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 through private donors for the initiative, he said.
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 people attending 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.
“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.
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.”