Arts free for all

An excellent New York Times article by Roberta Smith reviews museum admission-fee policies, and reveals a surprising trend to eliminate them.  While the Museum of Modern Art and the Art Institute of Chicago convert from voluntary to mandatory admission charges, many other museums head in precisely the opposite direction.  Baltimore’s museums report a substantial increase in attendance by people of color since the abolition of entrance fees, suggesting that those fees have indeed been a barrier to attracting new audiences to art.  And it’s one removed with relative ease, given that fewer than 15% of museum revenues come from the gate.

A museum executive opposed to this free-for-all (Smith’s coinage) notes the ticket prices readily paid for movies and rock concerts and asks huffily, "What is it about art that shouldn’t be paid for?"  Two answers suggest themselves: first, that the issue isn’t pay-ment but pay-or, whether users should pay or others pay on their behalf; second, that the gap between what people need and what they’re willing (or able) to pay for is the raison d’etre of the entire nonprofit sector.  Nonprofits exist to do the work markets can’t and the government won’t–and nonprofit executives who don’t get that are a bigger threat to the sector than any senator obsessed with misuse of the Internal Revenue Code or state attorney general drunk with regulatory hubris

If we believe democracy is better off with an educated citizenry, and that the arts are an essential component of education, we need to make them widely and freely available.  But people don’t buy things whose value they don’t understand, so they won’t purchase access to art before they’ve been educated about it–an education they can’t get without access.  So the market won’t pay for the fine arts.  Maybe the government should (and maybe it shouldn’t: I’m probably the only lefty culture-vulture in captivity who believes that s/he who accepts the prince’s largesse is obliged to serve the prince), but these days it doesn’t.  So nonprofits and their donors should. 

Institutions charging admission are penny-wise and pound-foolish: they’re the ones that will go out of business when the new generation can’t figure out what the hell they might be for.



3 Responses to “Arts free for all”

  1. Anita Bernstein Says:

    Exactly. What a perfect response to the suggestion that museum executives, like the people who promote the Rolling Stones tour, should price their tickets at what the traffic will bear. As you say, that’s a strategy for contracting one’s audience. The audience that remains are members of an artsy exclusionary association that has no particular claim to taxpayer largesse.

    You’ve inspired me to resolve to support museums that have recently made or reaffirmed a free admission policy, with both money and expressions of appreciation. If other donors–even ones at my little level–do the same, museums that decide not to charge would gain new revenues that would more than make up for what they now collect at the door from their mostly aging, upper-income ticket-buyers.

  2. Ellen Wadey Says:

    I find it particularly interesting that the Art Institute is adopting this policy right after the release of the Mapping Project from the University of Chicago, which basically says that once you take out the “forced visits” of school groups, museums are doing a terrible job of engaging underserved populations. They basically serve the neighborhoods — i.e. the wealth — surrounding them. So then you start to wonder, what is the mission of these museums? There is definitely a knee jerk reaction going on to the need for more revenue that is blinding (to mix my body part metaphors) organizations to the tough work of audience development. The Guild got caught in this for a while. Ultimately, we decided to make our readings free. Attendance has been up. (People are willing to give a reading a shot if it’s not going to cost them anything). And, we’re financially/organizationally /audience developmentally yards ahead of where we were when charging admission. It’s at these moments that I’m glad I’ve always worked in small shops. Good business practices are essential to survival these days. And, let’s face it, non-profits haven’t been known for doing a great job in this area. Small places can adjust — if you can survive that long. It’s going to take a lot of momentum for the big boys to get with it. And then I wonder, whatever happened to all the dough made on the “blockbuster exhibitions” from Monet to now?

  3. Kelly Kleiman Says:

    The question becomes when, if ever, to start charging admission again; or maybe even in the long run the loss of audience isn’t worth the gain in revenue. A friend newly moved to Chicago from Washington pointed out that she was a much more frequent museum-goer there than here, because the Smithsonian is free, so she can stop in for an hour this week and an hour next, instead of having to commit to a lengthy, “serious” visit.

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