A year ago I bought 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. Tomorrow my Art Pass expires and I thought I'd check to see if it had been value for money.
Spoiler: Yes, it's fabulous value... and no, I won't be renewing it.
A National Art Pass covers hundreds of sites across the country, including Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It arrives in the post along with your annual Art Map (which isn't a map but a chunky pocket-sized handbook of regional listings). A quarterly magazine entitled Art Quarterly arrives every three months. One year's membership costs £73, up from £70 last year, plus an extra £40 if you want to add a Plus One. Pay by direct debit and they'll offer a 25% reduction on your first year, which drops the cost below £55. I bought mine when there was a special offer on, so got a free Plus One and a free tote bag for my trouble. This January there's a different special offer, which I'll mention later.
For comparison, a year of the National Trust currently costs £72 and a year of English Heritage costs £60. But whereas those deals allow you free access to everything, a £73 Art Pass usually doesn't. Only about 250 of the 700 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.
50% admission: Benjamin Franklin House, Churchill War Rooms, Cutty Sark, Estorick Collection, Fashion and Textile Museum, Florence Nightingale Museum, Freud Museum, Garden Museum, HMS Belfast, House of Illustration, Museum of Brands, Old Royal Naval College, 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, Museum of London, National Army Museum, National Gallery, National Maritime Museum, Natural History Museum, National Portrait Gallery, Science Museum, Tate Britain, Tate Modern, V&A, Wallace Collection, 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 Arts, Kelmscott House, Mosaic Rooms, Museum of the Order of St John, Sir John Soane's Museum, South London Gallery, Two Temple Place, Wellcome Collection, William Morris Gallery
Free anyway: 25 other museums/galleries
The top box (free admission) is a pretty decent collection. I used my Art Pass in twelve of them over the last year and saved myself £115.50 altogether. Already that means I've saved twice as much on admission fees as I spent up front. The biggest prize was Kensington Palace where I saved £20 in one go. The Postal Museum was next (£11 off), then the Foundling Museum and Handel & Hendrix in London (£10 each). If I blogged about my visit, I've linked to it in the table above.
What I didn't visit were the National Trust freebies, because I already have membership of that, nor the English Heritage freebies, because that was my year-long subscription over the previous twelve months, nor four other museums I'd been to recently enough.
Half price admission to museums in the second box wasn't so alluring. I'd been to 13 of these attractions before so didn't feel a need to pay money to go again, and the other five didn't grab me enough.
As for getting 50% off exhibitions, which is what the Art Pass is really about, I barely used that. I got £9 off Bridget Riley at the Hayward Gallery last week, and she was excellent, but that's the only half price show I've seen. Most London art exhibitions are so expensive that even half price hasn't tempted me inside, for what's essentially a slow walk round a couple of rooms, and this is the first reason I'm not renewing my Art Pass for 2020.
Outside London my best Art Pass saving was in Ironbridge, where I didn't have to pay £26.50 to visit half a dozen museums down the gorge. Almost as good was £25 not spent to visit Chatham Dockyard. Just these two alone redeemed almost my entire annual outlay. Throw in Brighton Pavilion, The Museum of Carpet and seven other provincial locations, and I saved another £104.30. My thanks to the two readers who accompanied me.
So my total saving for the year was £228.80, which is comfortably over four times what the Art Pass cost me in the first place, and that is stunning value. But only £22 of that £228.80 was art-exhibition-related, the rest was basically museums, and this is the other reason why I'm not renewing my Art Pass for 2020. If I've been in 2019, I don't need to go again.
I rang up to cancel my subscription six weeks ago. It was surprisingly easy, they didn't try to stop me, they simply struck me off and put the phone down. I cancelled my direct debit too and thought no more about it. Then three weeks ago they sent me a new card - it's green this year - with a note saying they'd be taking £113 from my account last week. But they didn't, and they haven't got in touch since asking where my money is, so I appear to have ended up with a free Art Pass by mistake. I shan't be using it.
If you'd like one, there's a special trial offer at present where you can get three months of Art Pass membership for just £15. Imagine how much money you could save in three months if you made several visits over that time. But the special trial offer ends tomorrow, so you'll need to get a move on. Just remember to cancel before they charge you full whack... unless it turns out an Art Pass is for you.