Free admission to art museums – public good or good publicity?

By Cressida Smart

It’s almost a moral duty that museums should be free.”  (Glenn D. Lowry, Director of the Museum of Modern Art)

For the majority of museums, funding comes from the government, whether at national or local level, with the remainder made up through endowments, income from museum shops and other commercial ventures, private donations and sponsorship, and of course through admission. However, a business model with costs greater than five times its revenue is not one that most executives would consider successful. Museums are expensive to run, with the costs of acquisitions, conservation, maintenance, staff salaries and special exhibitions all weighing heavily upon their budgets. This, though, is the price many museums pay to continue offering free admission.

In the nonprofit world, an admission fee rarely covers what it costs to deliver services. In American art museums, the average admission income provides only 5 percent of the operating budget. This figure can vary widely, from as much as 15 percent at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York to 0 percent for the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., which does not charge admission. Museum theorists are keen to point out that admission fees may be the single biggest obstacle preventing museums from fulfilling their missions as educational institutions that are open and accessible to the widest range of visitors from all income levels and backgrounds.

The following questions must therefore be asked: Is the financial position of art museums so precarious that the 5 percent of operating budget provided by admissions fees is indispensable to the survival of the institution? Is there a middle ground between free admission and a standard entrance fee?

Potential visitors, especially families, are often understandably concerned about the financial costs associated with a museum visit, such as transportation, parking and lunch. As the costs have risen, visitors expect greater value for their admission. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when most of America’s museum collections were founded, these institutions were free to the public. The financial heavyweights who had the resources and foresight to establish some of America’s greatest art collections wanted to ensure that their cultural taste would be shared with the masses. To that end, some founders even planned for the perpetuity of free public admission, such as the St. Louis Art Museum providing free admission, having born the inscription “Dedicated to Art and Free to All” over its entrance since 1904.

Yet, as the American economy expanded over the decades since the founding of their first public art collections, prices, understandably, have also have risen for virtually every commodity—including admission to museum collections. In 2006 the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York announced a 33 percent increase, from $15 to $20 per adult visitor, to bring the Met’s recommended entry fee in line with those at other New York museums, most notably MoMA’s $20 charge. In July of this year, the Met increased the recommended entry price by a further 25% to $25. MoMA, also in New York, followed suit, by increasing entry by the same figure.

It would appear that such eminent New York museums rank amongst the highest with their admission fees. Recent exchange rates show that $25 was the equivalent of around €18. This is more than 80% higher than the €10 charged by the Musée du Louvre and the Museo Nacional del Prado,and infinitely more than the free admission to the national museums in London. However, New York museums include special exhibitions in the price of entry, whereas Tate Modern, charges £15.50 (about $25, or €18) for its Miró exhibition, and the Louvre €11 ($16, £10) for temporary exhibitions in the Salle Napoléon. The Prado includes temporary exhibitions for €10, but gives visitors the option of seeing the permanent collection for only €8.

London and Washington, DC are rare as both offer free admission to big museums. In London, attendances have risen since free admission was introduced in 2003. However, museums have not been fully reimbursed by government for the extra expense of dealing with such large visitor numbers. Extra shop and restaurant income does not cover the extra costs of dealing with the crowds, and people who could afford to pay do not donate an equivalent sum instead. Museums remain admission-rich but cash-poor. Once again, we return to the poor business structure on which many museums function.

Many of us have visited museums and seen the words “suggested donation” or “recommended amount” next to the admission fees, such as at the Met. The actual amount collected per visitor can be significantly lower than the suggested amount, often as much as 25 percent lower per visitor. A significant decrease in federal and state funding of visual arts since the 1980s might have had a strong effect on the price of admission to public art collections. Museums may have felt that admission fees represented a steadier, more reliable source of income—a revenue stream that they could predict and, to a certain extent, control. As illustrated in New York, increased competition in the marketplace has also been a significant factor.

Ultimately, offering designated times for free admission has become the usual method for museums to welcome first-time and lower-income visitors. This creates the most common equilibrium between the competing priorities of ideology, practicality and economics. By designating periods of free admission to attract the infrequent visitor, museums can more easily justify charging an entrance fee on a regular basis. MoMA has “Target Free Fridays” from 4pm to 8pm, but judging by the huge influx of visitors, making the museum experience often unpleasant, an alternative should be sought. The Whitney and the Guggenheim, both in New York, offer pay-as-you-wish on Friday evenings. The Louvre in Paris offers free admission to the permanent collection on the first Sunday of every month.

Art museums are also involved with new initiatives to develop a future generation of patrons for art and cultural institutions. People who join art museums as members contribute important financial and community support to their institutions. However, museums that do not charge a general admission fee usually have much smaller membership programs, because an annual membership charge typically includes reduced or free entry to the museum, which becomes an attractive incentive for membership purchases. Alternatively, one might logically conclude that museums with no admission fee will attract larger audiences and thus have a better chance at earning more revenue within the museum: more visitors, more sales in shops or restaurants.

The struggle between public service and financial stability is age-old for museums. While money drives the choices in daily operations for most museums, membership and community engagement appear just as frequently as criteria in the admissions debate. Free admission means access for everyone as well as an opportunity to build membership. If museums want to attract larger and more representative audiences, they need to accommodate them and lower their barriers.

Despite the challenging aspects of free admission days, it is reasonable to conclude that they are vital to a museum’s accessibility. Art museums should evaluate visitation patterns and the needs of visitors on both free and paid days to determine if the current situation achieves an optimal balance of access for the community, revenue for the museum and cultivation of the next generation of patrons. Enacting change from within the museum to promote community accessibility will need broad support from all levels of the museum, from the guards and visitor services staff through the curatorial and directorial teams.

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