Glenbow’s Fabulous Free First Thursday Nights

I am guilty as anyone when it comes to only visiting the Glenbow when it’s free. I can’t remember the last time I paid admission to go to the Glenbow.  I even used to be part of the Calgary’s visual arts community! And I am pretty sure I am not alone as I can’t recall when a friend or colleague last said, “We were at the Glenbow and saw this amazing exhibition. You must go.” 

Meryl McMaster’s “Dream Catcher” welcomes you to her provocative exhibition “Confluence” one of several worth seeing exhibitions on at Calgary’s Glenbow Museum.

Meryl McMaster’s “Dream Catcher” welcomes you to her provocative exhibition “Confluence” one of several worth seeing exhibitions on at Calgary’s Glenbow Museum.

First Thursday Fun

A visit to the Glenbow on March 7 for their “FREE First Thursday” (i.e. 5 to 9 pm the first Thursday of each month - thanks to sponsor Servus Credit Union) was very enlightening. The place was packed by 6:30 pm with over 700 people already having been through the Christian Dior feature exhibition (a fact direct from the security woman with the clicker in her hand). I’d guess there probably were a couple of hundred people in the gallery looking at the exhibition (not sure how you could see much as it was shoulder-to-shoulder people) and another couple of hundred in a line-up that snaked its way past three other exhibitions.  

It was so crowded, I almost thought I was in Disneyland. 

And, it wasn’t just the Dior exhibition that was busy. The entire museum was buzzing with hundreds of people of all ages, enjoying the other exhibits be it the Mavericks exhibitions on the third floor (that’s been there for 12 years), the exhibition of new works by Chris Cran, one of Calgary’s most respected visual artists or the historical art exhibitions.  I wonder how many, like me, came for the Dior exhibition like me, but weren’t going to wait in line.  No matter, they were looking at the art and seemed to be enjoying it.  

In fact, as it turned out, Zoltan Varadi, Glenbow’s Communication Specialist reports that over, 3,000 people visited the Glenbow after 5 pm that day, exceeding the average First Thursday attendance by 1,000 people.  

The Christian Dior exhibition is in the background the people in the foreground are the beginning of a long line-up of people waiting to get into the exhibition.

The Christian Dior exhibition is in the background the people in the foreground are the beginning of a long line-up of people waiting to get into the exhibition.

There is obviously a pent up demand to visit the Glenbow.  

I am pretty sure the Glenbow doesn’t look like this on the other Thursday nights, unless there is a free members and guest opening reception for a new blockbuster exhibition. In fact, if my math is correct (based on their 2018 Annual Report), the Glenbow’s average daily attendance is about 350 people (excluding school programs). 

Question: How do you go from 350 a day to 500 an hour?

Answer: Offer free admission. 

At any given time the Glenbow’s second floor art gallery offers several exhibitions on different aspect of the visual arts, from historical to contemporary.

At any given time the Glenbow’s second floor art gallery offers several exhibitions on different aspect of the visual arts, from historical to contemporary.

Kent Monkman’s installation titled, “The Rise and Fall of Civilization” with its three figures at the edge of a cliff makes multiple references to civilizations past and present.

Kent Monkman’s installation titled, “The Rise and Fall of Civilization” with its three figures at the edge of a cliff makes multiple references to civilizations past and present.

The exhibition of Blackfoot traditional clothing is a clever juxtaposition to the Christian Dior exhibition.

The exhibition of Blackfoot traditional clothing is a clever juxtaposition to the Christian Dior exhibition.

Obviously, people want to visit the Glenbow, just not pay for it, or at least not pay the current admission fees. 

Are admission fees too high?  Why won’t we pay $18 (adult), $12 (senior - 65+), $11 (youth - 7 to 17) or $45 (family – 2 adults and 4 kids)?  (Note: children under 6 are free.) Why don’t more Calgarians buy a Glenbow Membership $55 (adult), $75 (couple), $20 (student), $40 (senior), $65 (senior dual) and $90 (family).  Currently, only 2,700 of Calgary’s 559,000 households have Glenbow Memberships. That’s less than 1%. 

FYI: I think this schedule is unfair to single Calgarians.  If a couple can buy at membership for $75 then a single should get one for half that price - same for seniors. 

We don’t seem as price adverse for other recreational and entertainment activities. For example, most Calgarians willingly pay $14 for a 2 hour movie at the theatre? We don’t blink an eye to pay $20 for brunch or lunch at a restaurant. Heck, a good glass of wine at diner these days is $12. A round of golf is $50+ for four hours.  A drop in class at a good yoga studio is about $20 for 90 minutes. 

But $18 to visit the Glenbow? No way. 

Couple enjoying Chris Cran’s fun new works.

Couple enjoying Chris Cran’s fun new works.

Let’s get creative…

The Glenbow’s admission prices are slightly higher than those at Edmonton’s Art Gallery of Alberta and the Winnipeg Art Gallery but lower than those at the Vancouver Art Gallery.  It should be noted to that the Glenbow is both a public gallery AND history museum so visitors get two experiences for the price of one.  Perhaps there should be one price for the gallery, one for the museum and then a discounted combined price? 

  • I wonder what would happen if the Glenbow was free every day. Would that break the bank?  Would that create opportunities for more corporate sponsorships to make up for the loss admission revenue? 

  • What about experimenting with having every Thursday evening FREE? Would Servus Credit Union sponsor all of them? Or their could there be a different sponsor each week or each month?   

  • What about a free Family Sunday once a month. Yes, adults would have to bring a child under 18 to both get in free. What about free for all children under 18 all the time?  Don’t we want our children to be exposed to the visual arts and know about our local culture?

  • Maybe a couple of free teen days during the year.  Parents could drop them off at the Glenbow and then go do some shopping or have lunch downtown.  Win-win for downtown businesses! Perhaps the Calgary Downtown Association and the Chamber of Commerce might want to sponsor this one. 

  • What about 2-for-1 days?  Maybe a “pay what you want” day in the middle of the week - or one weekend a month.  Theatre Calgary offers a limited number of Pay-What-You-Can tickets on the first Saturday matinee during the run of each the five Mainstage productions.

  • What about a $2 lunch admission for downtown office workers? They aren’t going to pay $18 when they only have 50 minutes or so. 

  • What about $3 after 3 pm?  Happy hour pricing at an art gallery? Given the Gallery closes every day at 5pm (except Friday), this would give people 2 hours to view the exhibits – probably plenty of time for most people.  

  • What about using social media to announce fun special admission rates?  Maybe something like “Show this Glenbow tweet and get in for half price today or tomorrow.” 

  • Perhaps a monthly “Bring a Friend to the Glenbow” day for members.  It would be an added benefit for buying a membership and introduce more Calgarians to the Glenbow’s excellent exhibition and gift shop.  


On Location: Artists Explore A Sense of Place, curated by Sarah Todd provides a past and present overview of life in Canada.

On Location: Artists Explore A Sense of Place, curated by Sarah Todd provides a past and present overview of life in Canada.

Glenbow’s Conundrum

The Glenbow’s attendance has grown over the past five years, from 117,379 to 150,736 (Glenbow’s 2018 Annual Report). However, it begs the question: Has most of the growth been due to Free First Thursdays (2,000/mth X 12 = 24,000) since its introduction in 2016? 

The Glenbow also reports that 50,000+ of the 150,000 attendance is due to the Glenbow’s great school programs. Do the math and the actual paid museum admissions turn out to be about 75,000 (150,000 – 50,000 school tours and 24,000 Free Thursdays). In other words, just three times what is achieved in four hours on Thursday nights once a month.   

Here’s the conundrum. The Glenbow invests millions of dollars each year curating and presenting entertaining and enlightening exhibitions for which there is obviously a huge interest, but there is a huge barrier for people to see them – the price of admission.  At the same time, the Glenbow struggles to generate revenue as government grants have been frozen for many years and corporate donations are not easy to come by. So, they desperately need more admission revenue.  

This flies in the face of more free or discounted admission - or does it? Experimenting with a more creative admission schedule could result in more corporate sponsorship opportunities like the one with Servus Credit Union. Some of the above ideas could actually attract more paid visitors to the gallery (at a discounted price) who would never come at $18, so it means increased admission revenue. 

When Donna Livingstone was first appointed to the position of President and CEO of the Glenbow in May 2013, she said wanted to create “a new kind of art museum.”   In many ways she has done that when it comes to the exhibition, education, event programming and gift shop. 

But little has changed when it comes to admission fees.  Significant research has been done on the pros and cons of free and discounted admission, without any definitive conclusions as every gallery and museum has a different funding model and a different audience. Perhaps now is the time for the Glenbow to experiment with a creative admission fee schedule that would entice more Calgarians and tourists to visit our city’s largest and oldest cultural institution. 

An added benefit of having discounted admission more frequently – it would reduce the number of visitors on the Free First Thursdays, thereby making for a better experience as they have become too crowded. 

Just a suggestion!

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

Glenbow: A new kind of art museum

Glenbow: Stroke of Genius

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