Public Art Galleries: To Charge Or Not To Charge? 

Until recently, Regina’s Mackenzie Art Gallery was the only major public art gallery in Western Canada to offer free admission - to everyone, all the time. But starting June 10th 2019, it too started start charging - a $10 admission for non-members over the age of 17. 

Deborah Rush, Director of Communications at the Mackenzie informed me the primary reason for moving to a mandatory admission fee rather than by donation (pay what you wish) as had been the case prior, was NOT to generate more revenue, but to promote and increase memberships. Their goal is to double their membership to about 800, which will give them a stronger base to gather visitor feedback on existing and future programming.  

Memberships are $30 (individuals) and $55 (doubles).  This gets you unlimited visits to 10 exhibitions per year, as well as to numerous events (e.g. exhibition openings, artists’ and curators’ talks). 

They are lined up out the door and down the street on Tuesdays afternoons waiting for 5 pm when admission is by donation.

They are lined up out the door and down the street on Tuesdays afternoons waiting for 5 pm when admission is by donation.

Calgary’s Glenbow Museum is packed on Free First Thursday nights.

Calgary’s Glenbow Museum is packed on Free First Thursday nights.

Mandatory vs Donation vs Free

Admission and membership fees to Western Canadian public galleries are all over the map. This  shouldn’t be surprising given each has a different funding structure and offers members a different number of exhibitions, programs and amenities. I’ll spare you a cost per square foot or per exhibition analysis of admission fees and memberships across Western Canada.

Some would argue any institution receiving public funding should offer free access to the public on a regular basis.  Others would argue that if you make it free, you devalue the experience.  Surely, there must be a happy middle ground.

For Calgary’s Glenbow Museum, the middle ground is offering free admission to everyone the First Thursdays of each month from 5 to 9 pm.  While this token effort is appreciated, it is very restrictive and isn’t very family-friendly. Why not offer a free Saturday or Sunday per month in addition to an evening?   

The Glenbow’s free nights (sponsored by Servus Credit Union) attract, on average, 3,000+ people, making it the busiest day of the month and documenting there is a pent up demand to visit the museum if the price is right.  

The Edmonton’s Art Gallery of Alberta offers free access EVERY Thursday from 5 to 8 pm, while the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria offers free access all day the first Tuesday of every month, as well as complimentary admission to indigenous people at all times. In Saskatoon, the Remai Modern’s main floor gallery is always free and Rawlco Radio Ltd. sponsors free admission six times a year. Surprisingly, the Winnipeg Art Gallery doesn’t offer any weekly or monthly free admission to the public. 

The Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG) has the most liberal free public access of any Western Canadian public gallery. It offers admission by donation every Tuesday (from 4 to 9 pm), as well as the first Monday of every month to seniors 65+ from 10 am to 1 pm. While technically you can get in free, you must go to the admission desk to get a ticket. No just dropping your money in the donation box when you enter or exit the galleries. It is difficult to give nothing when everyone else is donating.  While the suggested donation is $10, you can give a little or as much as you wish.  I saw people giving loonies and twonies, but most people were giving $5 per person.

The VAG’s “by donation” program is a huge success with line-ups out the door and down the block most Tuesdays evenings - even in the rain. What does this tell VAG gallery administration? It tells me the regular admission price of $24 for an adult and $20 for a senior is too high and $5 is probably closer to the right amount. 

When I emailed VAG media relations re: how long the Tuesday admission by donation has been happening, they said “at least 12 years, but nobody knew for sure.” When I asked how much in total visitors donated on Tuesday nights and Monday mornings compared to other days of the week and what the average donation was, I was told “we do not share this information at this time.”  

Obviously, the whole free/donate vs paid admission is a sensitive subject for gallery administration. The popularity of the “free or donation admission” programs demonstrates the existing fee structure is a barrier to public visitation. 

Admission fees are a critical source of revenue. The Glenbow generated a million dollars in admission fees in 2018, which represented about 12% of its annual revenues.  VAG, with its huge tourist population, generates over $3 million in admissions (or about 25% of its annual revenues).  This revenue would be difficult to replace.  

Screen Shot 2019-08-10 at 11.57.54 AM.png
VAG patron checks out the art on Seniors’ Day.

VAG patron checks out the art on Seniors’ Day.

Not every First Thursday at the Glenbow is packed.

Not every First Thursday at the Glenbow is packed.

Festival Experience

In chatting with VAG’s gift shop staff on a Tuesday night (where the line-up was too long for me to wait to get in), they thought people liked the lively festival atmosphere the gallery has on donation nights, when it is full of people who animate the galleries, rather than the sombre atmosphere of the gallery most days.  

An experienced gallery patron (who prefers to remain anonymous) thinks having only a few free/donation nights creates a sense of urgency to go to the Gallery on those nights.  He thought you would lose the “thrill of the deal” if you have multiple free/donation nights/days. 

Zoltan Varadi, Communications Specialist at the Glenbow told me many people come on Free Thursdays but can’t get in to see the blockbuster exhibition so they return another time, paying full admission and often bringing family members or friends with them.  I think they call that a “loss leader” in the retail world. 

The Glenbow’s galleries take on a different feel on First Thursdays with lots of people milling about.

The Glenbow’s galleries take on a different feel on First Thursdays with lots of people milling about.

New York vs Toronto

Western Canadian public art galleries are not alone in this mandatory fee vs donation admission debate. Major museums like New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art moved to mandatory admission fees in 2018 after 48 years of a “pay what you wish,” policy, i.e. donation. 

In early May, the Art Gallery of Ontario announced a mega change to its mandatory admission fee policy – anyone 25 or younger now gets in FREE while anyone over 25 can purchase an annual pass for $35 which includes unlimited access to the galleries and special exhibitions.  It is important to note the annual pass doesn’t include other membership benefits like free coat check, discounts at the café and gift shop or early access to the exhibitions.  

It will be interesting to see how many of AGO’s current 100,000 members (more than all of the Western Canadian public art galleries combined) will opt to keep their individual memberships ($110/yr. vs the new $35 pass).

As well, the AGO is free every Wednesday night (from 6 to 9 pm) for collections galleries only with discounted admission fees to the special exhibition galleries and they offer complimentary general admission to all Indigenous Peoples. 

Last Word

I can’t help but wonder, “Is there a sweet spot where art galleries can maximize their number of visitors and their admission revenues?”  I realize there is no “one admission policy fits all.” 

Personally, I like the “admission-by-donation” policy. I don’t think admission should ever be free.  I also think there should be a minimum of one evening and one weekend day per month where admission is by donation.  

Note: An edited version of this blog was published on line by Galleries West Magazine.

If you like this blog, you will like these links:

Glenbow’s Fabulous Free First Thursdays

Montreal Museum of Fine: The Human Hand

SAKS: Department store or art gallery