My year (and a bit) of English Heritage membership expires today, so I've decided to switch over to a different cultural deal. I've thrown some money behind an Art Pass, which is the magic plastic operated by a charitable organisation called the Art Fund. They award grants to museums and galleries, and cardholders get to visit some of them for less, or for nothing. And that's why when I went to Handel & Hendrix in London, as blogged yesterday, I paid nothing rather than the usual £10.
A National Art Pass covers hundreds of sites across the country, including Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. One year's membership costs £70 (plus an extra £38 if you want to add a Plus One). Pay by direct debit and they'll offer a 25% reduction on your first year (which if you're only intending to join for one year, like I am, is much better value).
Your Art Pass arrives by second class post, along with your annual Art Map. This isn't a map but a chunky pocket-sized handbook (ideal for Barbour-sized pockets) including regional listings and a handful of maps. Mine arrived in a cardboard box too thick to fit through my letterbox, which initiated the dreaded "sorry you were out, please collect" charade, which is never a great way to start a relationship. The over-sized package may have been because the Art Fund are currently giving away a free tote bag with every new membership (which is lovely if you want one, but I didn't because I already have more freebie tote bags than the planet deserves). A quarterly magazine entitled Art Quarterly arrives every three months, but I haven't seen one of those yet because it's not March.
For comparison, a year of the National Trust costs £69 and a year of English Heritage costs £56. But whereas those deals allow you free access to everything, a £70 Art Pass usually doesn't. Only 240 of the 676 properties in the Art Pass handbook remove the admission fee entirely - hundreds more offer 50% off, others only give reductions on exhibitions and several merely provide 10% off in the shop or cafe. A significant number of the listings are free to enter anyway, and simply hoping to increase footfall by appearing in the book. The sliding scale of rewards drops off sharply.
As an example, here's precisely what the Art Pass offers in London.
Free admission: Brunel Museum, Charles Dickens Museum, Dorich House, Dulwich Picture Gallery, Fan Museum, Foundling Museum, Guards Museum, Handel & Hendrix in London, Heath Robinson Museum, Household Cavalry Museum, Jewish Museum, Keats House, Kensington Palace, Leighton House Museum, The Postal Museum Free admission to NT or EH property: 2 Willow Road, Apsley House, Carlyle's House, Chiswick House, Eltham Palace, Ham House, Osterley House, Ranger's House, Red House
50% admission: Benjamin Franklin House, Cartoon Museum, Churchill War Rooms, Cutty Sark, Estorick Collection, Fashion and Textile Museum, Freud Museum, Garden Museum, Hall Place, HMS Belfast, House of Illustration, Painted Hall, Royal Observatory Greenwich, Spencer House, St Paul's Cathedral, Strawberry Hill House Smaller reduction: Emery Walker's House, Photographers' Gallery
Free admission to exhibitions: Ben Uri, Horniman Museum, ICA 50% off exhibitions: British Library, British Museum, Design Museum, Courtauld Gallery, Dulwich Picture Gallery, Guildhall Art Gallery, Hayward Gallery, Imperial War Museum, Mall Galleries, Museum of London, National Army Museum, National Gallery, National Maritime Museum, National Portrait Gallery, Natural History Museum, Science Museum, Tate Britain, Tate Modern, V&A, Whitechapel Gallery Reduced entry to exhibitions: Barbican Art Gallery, Royal Academy
Small discount in cafe or shop: Bankside Gallery, Camden Arts Centre, Cubitt Gallery, Gasworks, Jerwood Visual Arts, Kelmscott House, Mosaic Rooms, Museum of the Order of St John, Sir John Soane's Museum, South London Gallery, Two Temple Place, Wallace Collection, Wellcome Collection, William Morris Gallery
Free anyway: 25 other museums/galleries
The top box (free admission) is a pretty decent collection, with Kensington Palace possibly the biggest prize. If you visited all 24 of these over the course of a year you'd easily save more than your Art Pass cost in the first place. I'm not over-excited by the inclusion of nine places I could have got into for nothing with my National Trust or English Heritage membership, and I've been to most of the others already. But expect to see reports from several of these Art Pass freebies popping up during the year, starting yesterday.
Half price admission isn't such a great deal, although it does make certain attractions a lot more attractive. There's certainly a few places in that list I might be tempted to go back to, or visit for the first time, at that rate. I'm also intrigued to see the Old Royal Naval College's Painted Hall on the 50% list, given it hasn't reopened yet after its refurb and always used to be free, but won't be in the future.
The Art Pass's strongest sales pitch is the Half Price Exhibitions list. This includes some real big hitters, including all the much-sought-after exhibitions at the British Museum, National Gallery, Tate and V&A. Admission prices for these are often extremely high for what's essentially a slow walk round a couple of rooms, and the Art Pass cuts this down to more reasonable levels. It's still not cheap, but I guess the idea is that anyone who's already forked out £70 on an Art Pass can easily afford £9 to see Sorolla, Bonnard or Ashurbanipal.
You won't be surprised to hear that London is the region with the most Art Pass listings, with approximately 15% of the national total. Adding in the three regions surrounding the capital raises that percentage to 40%. You may not get your annual moneysworth if you live in Glasgow, Norwich or Plymouth. But don't discount looking further afield, because there are some cracking discounts to be had.
Here are a few Art Pass highlights from outside London (in a list that's mostly for my benefit, obviously).
Free admission: Cardiff Castle, Christ Church Picture Gallery, Colchester Castle, Ditchling Museum, Dove Cottage, Duff House, Historic Dockyard Chatham, Ironbridge/Coalbrookdale etc, Lewes Castle, Museum of the Jewellery Quarter, Norwich Castle, Royal Pavilion, Saffron Walden Museum, Shakespeare's Family Homes, Soho House, Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, Verulamium Museum, Watts Gallery, Wedgwood Museum
50% admission: Bletchley Park, Brooklands Museum, Chatsworth, Jane Austen's House Museum, Jerwood Gallery, Mary Rose Museum, Museum of Carpet, Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, Tate St Ives
50% off exhibitions: Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Higgins Bedford, Kelvingrove Gallery, Tate Liverpool, Towner Art Gallery, V&A Dundee
Let's see what opportunities my Art Pass opens up before it expires one year today. And if you're interested in being my Plus One on a future visit, do let me know.