The Art Gallery of Ontario is offering free admission to visitors 25 and under. (Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Art Gallery of Ontario offers free entry to those 25 and under, launches $35 annual pass

TORONTO — The Art Gallery of Ontario is reaching out to its young audience with free admission to those aged 25 and under, and hoping to broaden its reach with a $35 annual pass.

The changes are being floated as a one-year experiment beginning May 25.

Gallery director and CEO Stephan Jost says he expects the pass will entice more people to visit regularly instead of buying single-ticket admissions, which are going to increase to $25 from $20 and will include special exhibitions.

Jost says the scheme should be revenue-neutral if the gallery can sell about 120,000 passes while maintaining its roughly 100,000 members, who will continue to pay a premium for perks including coat check, early previews and a members’ lounge.

He also says that selling more individual passes will allow the gallery to learn more about its visitors so it can tailor marketing and promotional material more efficiently.

Advance sales begin Thursday at, in person at the AGO, and by phone at (416) 979-6648.

The AGO is keeping its more costly membership levels, which start at $45 for students and $110 for individuals, and go up to $2,499 for top supporters. The $35 pass is a new tier in the options for visitors.

“If we get the word out and lots of people become annual pass-holders, we’ll be fine. If the word doesn’t get out and all our members move to $35, we’ll have some problems,” chuckles Jost, admitting the move is a gamble.

“Somebody has to try it.”

The gallery has a safety net, of sorts, if the subscription model doesn’t take hold.

Jost says they’ve raised $1.8 million from private sources, companies and individuals to help with the transition. And a U.S. financial institution — which wants to remain anonymous — gave the gallery US$200,000 to backstop the scheme.

Undoubtedly some members will shift to the cheaper pass, says Jost, but he believes other art fans will upgrade to membership levels.

In return, the gallery will gain granular data about who visits the gallery, when they visit and what their interests are.

For example, if the AGO notices a guest favours Impressionist shows, they now know to tell them about an upcoming Impressionist lecture.

“If you come in and you buy just a ticket, we don’t know who you are now. So I can’t spend time communicating to you what’s going on — you’re anonymous,” says Jost.

“With the annual pass you’ll no longer be anonymous, which will allow us to tell you about what we’re doing.”

The AGO adds in a followup email that visitor data will “absolutely not” be shared with any third parties.

Pass holders will be sent a digital AGO card to download on their mobile phone. And guests between the ages of 18 and 25 will also get a digital pass so they can be tracked.

Jost says that should free up money that would be spent on marketing to instead go towards enticing communities that don’t historically visit museums.

“There is risk, but I’m pretty optimistic. We really worked hard to figure out how low can we push that price point. We could probably make more money if we said well, it’s $45, but the goal is to actually increase access, participation. The $35 seemed like the right thing.”

Jost expects it will especially cement ties to 20-year-olds, who are the largest chunk of the AGO’s visitors.

They’re also often among the gallery’s most ardent ambassadors on social media.

Last spring’s exhibition Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors drew more than 169,000 visitors, many of them millennials who posted selfies of the work on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

Jost says the gallery’s free Wednesday night event, popular with 20-somethings will remain.

Over the last three years, membership and admission together generated an average revenue of $12.3 million per year.

Last year there were 950,841 visits in total, and the year before there were more than one million, including member visits, school groups, corporate visits and other categories, says the AGO.

The AGO also announced Thursday a new all-day party called AGO All Hours, set to take place three times a year. The event will evolve and change through the day to attract families, art nerds and late-night partiers.

Jost expects that, too, will “solidify our 20-year-old audience.”

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