Museums Austria

Why the Kunsthistorisches Museum can’t afford to abolish entrance fees

With over 1.1 million annual visitors we raise between €6m and €7m from entrance fees or around 19% of the total budget

The Kunsthistorisches Museum's director general, Sabine Haag, says they simply cannot afford to go without entrance fees

Many people ask me why the Kunsthistorisches Museum (KHM)—Austria’s foremost public museum—does not follow the example of London’s National Gallery or the British Museum and not charge admission. Why don’t we remove the barrier, the inhibition threshold that entrance fees undoubtedly constitute, and offer everyone interested in art unlimited access to the collections that have belonged to the nation since the abolition of the monarchy? Free admission would surely be an incentive to visit the KHM as well as collections more often, especially for the underprivileged and the disadvantaged.

Some of Austria’s public museums already offer free admission at certain times of the day or on designated days and during these periods visitor numbers rise significantly. Some of my colleagues, however, would respond that the arts should not be free, that things that are free are held in low esteem—and there is undoubtedly some truth in this. After all, we don’t mind paying for a ticket to hear an opera or a concert or to see a film. So what should we do? Free admission to all major museums, or continue as before?

For the Kunsthistorisches Museum the answer is easy: we simply cannot afford it!

The museum needs the annual income from the sale of entrance tickets. Thirteen years ago our museum and its incorporated museums (the Museum of Ethnology and the Austrian Theatre Museum) were turned into an independent scholarly institution, as were the other Austrian federal museums (Albertina, Belvedere, Museum für Angewandte Kunst [MAK], Museum Moderner Kunst [Mumok], Technisches Museum and the Austrian National Library), with each museum now receiving fixed annual basic funding; in the case of the KHM this covers approximately 65% of our budget. The remaining 35% has to come from entrance fees, shops, reproduction fees, events, loan fees, donations, sponsorship activities as well as the production, sale and marketing of exhibitions.

With over 1.1 million annual visitors we raise between €6m and €7m from entrance fees or around 19% of the total budget—a sizable contribution, and one, moreover, that our current legal and financial situation simply does not allow us to relinquish.

Children get in for free

Children under the age of 19 can visit public museums for free, thanks to a measure implemented in January 2010 by Claudia Schmied, the Austrian Federal Minister for Education, the Arts and Culture. The move has made federal museums particularly attractive as non-school places of learning and entertainment, and the ministry has supported numerous initiatives and programmes targeting young and teenage visitors. In 2010, Austria’s public museums attracted 920,000 visitors under the age of 19, an impressive 24% increase over 2009 that clearly illustrates the success of this measure. The ministry compensates the museums for the resulting loss of income.

Introduction of annual tickets proves popular

The Kunsthistorisches Museum adapted its entrance fees in 2012 to meet the needs of its visitors, over 70% of which are tourists with locals making up the remaining 30%. An annual €29 ticket (a single entrance ticket is €12) was introduced to attract local visitors, especially families, enabling them to visit our seven museums as often as they like for an entire year. Sales figures offer proof of its popularity: since its introduction, over 60,000 annual tickets have been sold. This shows that this attractive offer has proved hugely popular with local visitors and tells us that the measure is an important step in the direction of customer satisfaction and loyalty. Even tourists staying in Vienna for several days frequently buy an annual ticket.

The Kunsthistorisches Museum is also fulfilling its educational objectives by offering an extensive programme of free lectures, gallery talks and guided tours as well as free concerts, scholarly lectures and symposia in connection with our temporary exhibitions.

Abolishing entrance fees in Austria’s public museums (excluding temporary exhibitions that are expensive to mount) would lead to serious financial losses requiring the government to step in and compensate museums. However, in the present political and economic climate I see but little chance of achieving this major cultural and educational goal. But the abolition of entrance fees for children under the age of 19 marked an important first step, as every measure that persuades people to visit a museum is laudable and helps to establish museums in the heart of society.

The writer is the director general of Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum, the Museum of Ethnology and the Austrian Theatre Museum. She is currently preparing for the reopening of the KHM’s Kunstkammer, set for this December, after an ambitious ten-year restoration project. Haag is also a member of the steering committee of the Bizot Group.

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