Are admission prices too expensive?

Museum and gallery officials struggle with their costs and what people can afford to pay

Are admission prices too expensive?When Edmonton’s Art Gallery of Alberta, or the AGA, opens its glass doors this weekend, lineups are expected to mimic the steel ribbons furling around the building’s exterior. Ten thousand free-entry tickets for the first two days have been snapped up by locals keen to check out the $88-million reno. The response echoes the excitement surrounding Frank Gehry’s revamped Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), which drew 68,000 on its free first weekend in November 2008, and continues to attract 1,500 to 2,000 to its no-charge Wednesday evenings.

The spectre of crowds clamouring for gratis access to gawk at Goya and Degas reflects a modern Catch-22 with more twists and turns than the AGA’s bold new facade: on one hand, there’s a decided hunger for the public gallery experience, reflected in strong emerging 2009 attendance numbers. As Kelvin Browne, the vice-president of marketing and major exhibitions at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), puts it: “In a virtual age, the power of real things increases.” Yet there’s also resistance (and inability) to pay the admission these institutions must charge to cover budget cutbacks and still create the “Wow!” spaces and quality exhibits required to attract audiences fed a diet of virtual spectacle. Adult admissions to the country’s major institutions vary widely: the AGA is raising its to $12 from $10, due to higher costs of running its expanded space and an ambitious new programming push, says executive director Gilles Hébert. “It’s a thing of value,” he says. Post Gehry redo, adult entry to the AGO rose to $18 from $15, an increase that prompted the architect’s quip, “highway robbery.” Ottawa’s National Gallery charges $9. The Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG) charges $19.50 (winter), $20.50 (summer). And at the ROM, it’s $22.

Where admission prices mount up is when it comes to those rambunctious tabula rasa who benefit most from museum exposure. Some galleries, including the National Gallery, let children under 12 in for free, a policy that should be enshrined in law. The ROM, on the other hand, charges $19 for students aged 15 to 17 and $15 for children four to 14, which can make family outings prohibitive, even on half-price Fridays.

It’s a source of frustration within the institutions themselves. “We’re very sensitive to the costs,” says Dan Rahimi, the ROM’s vice-president of gallery development. But comparing the $22 ROM entry fee with a $13 adult movie ticket is not the correct measure, he notes: “Compared with a symphony or a rock concert or an opera we’re a bargain.” The ROM’s recent Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit, which drew 300,000, is a case in point. It borrowed the artifacts from Israel, and the Canadian government insured them, but the costs still required a $6 surcharge to general adult admission, he says. “The level of production is very demanding in terms of shipping, security, display and advertising.”

Calculating admission prices is an “art and science,” says Sue Bloch-Nevitte, head of AGO public affairs. “Research says you never ask, ‘How much would you be willing to pay?’ ” Among other considerations, galleries do due diligence to ensure rates are in line with similar local venues, says Dana Sullivant, the VAG’s director of marketing and communications (the VAG measured itself against ski resort Grouse Mountain, $37.95, the Aquarium, $22, and Science World, $18.75).

Pricing admission to induce people to take out a membership is a less overt gambit. This delicate tipping-point practice is explicit in the ROM’s entry, where a sign announces it’ll cost $74 for two adults and two children, $104 for two adults and four children, but a (relatively) mere $139 for an annual membership offering unlimited access.

Paradoxically, offering free access can be a gateway drug that makes people come back for more. Last year, the Toronto library system began offering almost-impossible-to-procure free passes to cultural institutions, including the AGO and ROM. People who live two hours away from the venue by public transit line up for hours, says board spokesperson Linda Hazzan. Many end up taking out memberships.

But government-funded institutions quite rightly are sensitive to their duty to break down barriers to access through outreach programs. The AGA is working with a private-sector sponsor to fund one free night a month. And the VAG will offer free admission during the Olympics, underwritten by the provincial government, which has figured out one surefire way to draw a crowd.