The Art Gallery of Alberta is trying something new: free admission for youth, students and weeknight visitors. The first two in a series of three changes at the AGA eliminated the entrance fee for visitors under age 18 and for Alberta post-secondary students, and offered free admission from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. The third change will be announced in July.
Executive director and chief curator Catherine Crowston says the changes are part of the AGA’s strategic plan to increase attendance, expand demographics and grow the potential audience of culturally literate adults. The initiative will be funded by an extra $250,000 from the city; at the end of two years the AGA will evaluate its impact. Admission and membership sales account for up to 10 per cent of AGA’s revenues, but an increase in visitors is expected to boost sales at the gallery’s gift shop and restaurants.
The move follows a pitch by the gallery in 2015 to eliminate admission fees altogether, which failed to receive the support of city council. Attendance has dropped off since the initial excitement of the gallery’s opening in 2010—the AGA had 48,420 gallery admissions in 2015 compared to 123,000 in 2012. Crowston says the decline is typical for new museums, and the goal now is to get people back in the door.
The recent changes build on the popularity of past events with free admission, including the last Thursday evening of the month, which started when the gallery opened, and holidays such as Canada Day and Family Day. “This past Family Day we had about 5,500 people here in one day, so we know that people want to see the art gallery, they want to see the exhibitions. But cost really does seem to be a barrier, particularly for families,” Crowston says. “We see a huge change in demographics when we have free days. Many new citizens to Edmonton take advantage and come to see the gallery.”
“People want to see the art gallery. But cost really does seem to be a barrier.”
She adds that the changes target youth and students because that’s where arts appreciation and understanding begins. “If we make it easy for them to make the art gallery a habitual part of what they do, [if we] remove that cost barrier, then I think that will help to grow the future audiences of adults who will be museum supporters, arts educated, culturally literate people.”
In Calgary, Glenbow is in its second year of opening its doors for free on the first Thursday evening of the month. At the debut event in January 2016, more than 4,000 people attended. “Our goal was 500. It was shocking, we were gobsmacked,” says Jenny Conway Fisher, marketing and communications manager. The second event attracted more than 3,000 people and since then free nights have averaged about 1,000—more than double what the museum sees on a typical weekend. “The awareness of Glenbow existing and being a place to go to—it’s advanced that cause exponentially.”
Fisher says one of the Glenbow’s main challenges has been attracting adults who visited with their school as children but never came back. The free events are a chance to show them that there’s always something new to see beyond the permanent exhibits.
Fisher adds that the positive response to these events has prompted discussion about examining other barriers to museum access, such as limited hours. “Many of us who work at Glenbow believe access is so important to what we do,” she says. “The more we can get people connected to Glenbow, the better.”
Maureen McNamee is an associate editor at Alberta Views.