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Art Gallery of Ontario attendance falls 30 per cent

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Attendance at the Art Gallery of Ontario dropped by 30 per cent in 2010-11, although the Toronto museum said on Tuesday that its just-completed Maharaja exhibition was a success, luring more than 63,000 first-time visitors.

Despite the attendance decline, however, the AGO, one of North America's larger art institutions, expects a balanced budget, thanks to savings in programming, and not the $3-million revenue shortfall some had predicted.

In a statement, the gallery said total attendance for the past fiscal year was slightly less than 613,000. The year before, the total was 878,000 - a record, paced by the more than 404,000 visitors to the King Tutankhamen blockbuster of November, 2009, to May, 2010.

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By contrast, Maharaja: The Splendour of India's Royal Courts drew about 163,000 visitors during a 19-week run that ended last weekend - enough to claim bragging rights as the best-attended show of 2010-11. Of these visitors, more than 47,000, about 29 per cent, took advantage of the AGO's offer of free admission to those 25 years and under. With its potpourri of costumes, jewels, weapons and art, Maharaja was conceived by the AGO as both an outreach and lure to Canada's South Asian communities as well as a way "to expand the definition of art in our lives," according to AGO director Matthew Teitelbaum.

While the gallery claims it acquired 4,127 new members "directly" because of Maharja, overall membership dropped 4 per cent, to 34,500 households from 36,099 in 2009-10.

Officially at least, the AGO appears to have dodged what some press reports last fall were characterizing as a looming crisis in attendance and revenue. The talk was sparked by the failure of Drama and Desire: Artists and the Theatre, a large, expensive exhibition that included loans from the Tate London and the Louvre but drew fewer than 55,000 visitors during its three-month showcase last summer. When that show ended in late September, the AGO's total attendance for the first half of its fiscal year was slightly more than 200,000 - 38 per cent less than the same period the previous year and, for some, a harbinger that the gallery would not match the $1.5-million surplus it enjoyed earlier.

Gallery spokeswoman Antonietta Mirabelli said on Tuesday that the AGO "never said we were in crisis. Certain parties made that assumption in the media. [But]we always maintained we would end the year on a balanced footing. ... Through our usual fiscal prudence, we identified savings in our program expenditures."

Before the 2008 recession, which occurred as the AGO was finishing a $300-million renovation and expansion, the gallery said it hoped to have an annual average attendance of 650,000. Averaging totals for its past two fiscal years - the first full fiscal years since the gallery reopened upon completing Transformation AGO - the gallery has drawn about 745,000 visitors annually (although the 613,000 visitors reported on Tuesday is 52,000 less than what the gallery claimed, pre-Transformation AGO, in 2004-05).

Note to readers This story has been changed to reflect the following correction: The Art Gallery of Ontario had 34,500 household memberships in 2010-11, a decline of 4 per cent from the previous year. Incorrect information appeared on Wednesday.

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