Tate and National Gallery visitors down since museums became free

Government policy promotes Free Admission

A recent House of Commons committee on national museums has supported the principle of free admission, but warns that “since the government has called the tune, it must keep paying the piper.” The select committee on Culture, Media and Sport points out that free admission is “an excellent joint achievement” between government and museums and galleries, and it must not “go astray” because of reductions to core funding. The report also accepts British Museum director Neil MacGregor’s description of the funding allocation process as “opaque”, with the committee calling for “a transparent dialogue over bids.”

Among new information presented as evidence to the committee is data from the National Gallery and the Tate on the impact of competition from previously charging national museums. After charges were abolished in December 2001 at other museums, the two major art galleries, which have always been free, suffered a drop in visitors as a direct result. The National Gallery estimated that in 2002 it faced a fall of 8% because of free admission elsewhere, equivalent to 400,000 visitors. If the average visitor brings in net income of about £2 ($3.20) (from shops, café, donations, etc), this means a loss of £800,000 ($1.27 million) in revenue. The Tate presented very similar figures, estimating that it had lost 10% of its visitors, which also worked out at 400,000 people on its slightly lower total.

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 134 March 2003