Attendance USA

To charge or what to charge?

As museums in Boston and New York put up prices, we ask who charges, and why

Sold out: Alexander McQueen at the Metropolitan this summer

The debate over museum entry fees was reignited following the news that both the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) Boston and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York—already the country’s most expensive museums to visit—were both raising their general entry fees, from $20 to $22 at the MFA and $25 at MoMA. Earlier this year, the Metro­politan Museum of Art announced a hike in its suggested admission, also from $20 to $25.

The Art Newspaper surveyed 30 of the nation’s leading museums and discovered an ideological split, with some focusing on revenue generation and others stressing the museum’s role as a community—and free—resource.

Unlike the United Kingdom, where national museums have free entry, institutions in the US take several different approaches, seemingly based on geography. Museums in major cities, especially those that attract tourists, by and large charge for entry. Their counterparts in areas with fewer international tourists or which rely on local visitors are more likely to be free because they need those visitors to return.

Nearly half the museums surveyed do not charge general admission. With a few exceptions, those that charge only for special exhibitions made less than 1% of the total operating budget through ticket sales. In contrast, museums that issue a general entry fee earned an average of 9.5% of their budgets this way.

“The core issue is whether museums are being opportunistic in the face of demand; that demand is obviously a function of the specific locale,” said Maxwell Anderson, the director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, which is free. For example, New York attracts large numbers of cultural holidaymakers and its museums have capitalised on this. MoMA, which received more than 3m visitors last year, earned $22.7m, or 19.5% of its $100.5m total budget, through admissions. The Met raised $32.2m, or 10.2% of its annual budget, from suggested admissions prices.

Meanwhile, Los Angeles museums have to work hard to lure visitors away from Hollywood and the beach, and their entry is therefore competitively priced. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which charges $15, only generated 5% of its total budget from admissions, and the Museum of Contemporary Art, which charges $10, made slightly more at an estimated 6.3% this year, up from 3.8% in 2010.

Regional cities have fewer tourists to exploit and, as a result, tend to be more altruistic and community-minded. Of the museums surveyed that do not charge admission, two-thirds were in smaller cities. “I am determined we will keep free general admission, and our board is committed to it,” said David Franklin, director of the Cleve­land Museum of Art. “Frankly, it is something that attracted me to this job—it is a noble signal to your audience that you have a sincerely populist goal.” Free admission has a definite effect on visitor numbers, said Anderson, who got rid of the museum’s $7 admission fee in 2006, and saw attendance increase from 185,000 to 462,000 within a year. “Our collections are always accessible to the public,” said Julián Zuga­zagoitia, the recently appointed director of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri. “We’ve had an increase of visitors and more people are spending time looking at the permanent collection,” he added.

The Met and MoMA cited “economic necessity” and “escalating costs”, respectively, as the reasons behind the price rises. Kim French, the deputy director of the MFA in Boston, said increased costs, specifically medical care, were to blame. “We are a privately funded museum. We only receive about 0.5% from state or federal funding, so we really look to create income from admissions and membership revenue,” said French.

The revenue raised at turnstiles does “make our budget year a little bit easier” according to Graham Beal, director of the Detroit Institute of Arts, which charges $8 for general admission. It can also drive membership; museums that charge often offer free admission as a membership ­incentive. “It’s an important part of our arrangement—we’d have to find something else to give members,” said Beal. This issue “is a big internal debate”, said Franklin. “If it is free to enter the museum, it is much more difficult in theory to generate members.”

One way around this is to encourage a culture of philanthropy, marketing memberships as a way to keep the doors open, free for everyone. “Funda­ment­ally you want a strong vision so people altruistically want to support the museum and be part of something that is tremendously positive for the community,” said Franklin. Zuga­zagoitia agrees: “When people become a member they want to become part of something bigger.

I think it’s a message that we can do more with.”

Whatever their approach, everyone agrees that it is a delicate balance, and one which is “critical to the physical health of the museum”, said James Cuno, who took over as president and chief executive of the Getty Trust earlier this year. Cuno can see both sides of the argument, having led the Art Institute of Chicago, where he introduced an increase in admission price and reduction in free hours during the economic downturn. It is a “great luxury”, he said, to work at the Getty, whose

$5.3 billion endowment ensures that the museum can provide free entry. “Whatever the sources of the museum’s revenue, they must balance at the end of the year. Earned revenue is an important part of it. You can increase the admission price to the point where fewer people come but there are enough to meet your revenue demand, or you can reduce it to, say, $10 and increase the [number] of people who will come. You have to figure out the line to make that work,” said Cuno.

CORRECTION: The Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) Boston's admission price is $22, not $25.

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