Museums Should Be Free
For the past few months, I have been working in the interpretation department of a museum. It is the role of our department to think about how visitors interact with artwork, and create tools—text, audio guides, games, etc.—to make that interaction more meaningful.
It’s a dream job for me. Museums played a huge and formative role in my childhood, and I want to make that positive influence as accessible as possible. I hope that museums can change the way viewers think, and even change the course of a young viewer’s future.
But there’s a roadblock standing in the way of this goal.
Tickets to the museum where I work cost $19.50 per person – slightly less for students, seniors, and children. Tickets to the Museum of Modern Art cost $25. Tickets to the Metropolitan Museum of Art are technically pay-what-you-wish, but you’d be hard pressed to find a cashier who will tell you that if you don’t ask.
Culture should not be the purview of the very rich. Access to the arts should be free and open to all, and museums should lead the way.
When I first decided it would be my personal quest to make museums in America free, sometime late in college, I thought that I could achieve it by preaching these lofty statements about art for all. I could create a national fund, I thought, made up of both public and private money, and it would provide huge grants to all museums that let everyone in the door without charge.
I’ve grown up since then and realized the only argument that will persuade museums to abolish admission is a financial one. Maxwell Anderson, director of the Dallas Museum of Art and my professional hero of the moment, has outlined such an argument recently. In January, his museum stopped charging admission to their permanent collection. Anderson argued in an opinion piece in The Art Newspaper in February 2013, titled “Free Entry Can Pay Dividends,” that the choice to eliminate admission was not only beneficial to the museum’s role as a community institution, but also a wise financial decision. An idealist as well as a pragmatist, Anderson wrote, “Our attention might usefully be focused on burnishing our relevance to people’s lives rather than on the rewards of admissions income.”
Someday, I hope that general museum admission, including to special exhibitions, will be free, but right now that’s not very feasible. What is realistic, however, is providing free admission to museums’ permanent collections.
The financial argument for free admission is clear. For most museums, the percentage of revenue resulting from admission is small. By Anderson’s calculations, the average museum—excluding the major New York museums, which are outliers—receives only 5% of revenue from ticket sales.
By getting rid of admission charges, a museum is demonstrating its dedication to serving the community. It might appear more attractive to private and public funders, and even qualify for new grants. The revenue lost could be offset.
Eliminating fees to see the permanent collection will not also eliminate all admission revenue. Many people go to museums specifically to see the special exhibitions, and a new admission policy is unlikely to change their habits.
Free permanent collection admission provides the opportunity for something of an up-sell: see our collection for free, but while you’re here, why not pay extra to see the masterworks we have on view in the other gallery? It’s not ideal from a public perspective, but from the viewpoint of a museum’s resident bean counters, the appeal is clear.
In a 2002 Harvard University round table discussion, MoMA director Glenn Lowry pondered aloud about the value of a museum visit. He said, “Why should this treasured experience be free, especially for an entity that gets virtually no government funding? And by making it free, are we inadvertently devaluing it?” In fact, the opposite is true: art is so valuable that we cannot afford for admission not to be free. Free admission does not devalue art; it increases the value. It announces to the world: this is so important that everyone must be able to see it.
Museums should work to engage with their audiences, both their already existing visitors and potential new visitors, to call attention to the historical, intellectual, and emotional importance of art. When a museum charges a high fee for entry, it not only prevents a large sector of potential visitors from attending, it also it places weight on the economic value of the artworks contained within. But museums do not own and display art because of its the economic value; they treasure it for its more intangible significance. Free admission draws attention to this latter quality and proves that museums are sincere in their mission to serve the public. They are not commercial attractions but vital, living parts of our social fabric. When American museums acknowledge this crucial fact by opening their doors to all, they not only provide a great service to the community, but they may also find it provides them with a financial advantage.