Should art museums be free?

Should art museums be free? The answer is yes. Having admission prices, even siggested donations, further polarizes it into making art museums some sort of “hoity-toity” interest reserved for the upper classes. Art museums are also a place that kids really benefit from visiting.

Should Art Museums Always Be Free? There’s Room for Debate

A museum’s admission policy is charged with meaning. It encodes the institution’s core values — its sense of itself, its mission and its public — and broadcasts them to that public. It’s like a thumbprint, a tiny yet accurate key to a whole identity. It is also, periodically, a hot-button issue.

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Dilip Vishwanant for The New York Times

Engraved into the stone facade above the entrance to the St. Louis Art Museum is the phrase “Dedicated to Art and Free to All.”

Forum: Artists and Exhibitions

In a 2002 panel discussion at Harvard University that was recently quoted on the art blog Culture Grrl, Glenn D. Lowry, director of the Museum of Modern Art, remarked that “it’s almost a moral duty that museums should be free.” Another panelist, Philippe de Montebello, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, emphatically differed. Noting that people pay “huge amounts to money” to attend rock concerts and sports events, he asked, “What is it about art that it shouldn’t be paid for?”

That excellent question is front and center in New York this month, now that the Met has announced a rise in its suggested admission fee, to $20 from $15. Those who were upset by the increase should remember that the Met’s admission is still suggested, a voluntary donation. (Hello? You can pay a penny.)

The real offense is the museum’s coyness about publicizing this fact, having some time ago deleted from its ticket-desk signs the sentence “Pay What You Wish but You Must Pay Something.” Nonprofit institutions aren’t exempt from truth in advertising, and partial truth is not sufficient. On the other hand, the $20 admission fee is absolutely required at the Museum of Modern Art, which raised it from $12 — a 67 percent increase — in 2004.

To justify such fee increases, or for that matter the very existence of fees, this country’s museums have come to cast themselves as a blend of popular entertainment, corporation and school. From this has descended a confused identity and any number of ills: mall-like, low-functioning new wings and expansions; museum bookstores largely devoid of books; ever-larger departments of “education’’; and boards of trustees too willing to approve impulse sales from the permanent collection or to siphon authority from seasoned curators.

But museums only partly resemble popular entertainment. Unlike corporations, they were not founded out of a profit incentive. They are only marginally like schools, where the overriding goal is the learning of basic skills.

As has been said before, museums are most comparable to libraries. Like libraries, they are repositories of knowledge. Like books, artworks are tools for lifelong self-education; it is through them that we discover and explore important aspects of our humanness. They should be equally available to all, for the good of the individual and society as a whole. Most Americans would be appalled if public libraries charged entrance fees.

Setting out to write this article, I expected to make a plea for free museums and to propose that all museums pledge publicly to the principle and then work toward it, the way car manufacturers are working toward zero-emission engines. I call it the free-for-all pledge.

But my research revealed that an impressive number of museums appear to have made this pledge — that they have recently “gone free” or have been free, or almost free, to the public for quite some time. In late May, Baltimore’s most prominent museums — the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Walters Art Museum — announced that they would eliminate admission charges on Oct. 1 with the help of an $800,000 grant from the city and the county.

Baltimore follows the example of St. Louis, which in 1971 started using city and county tax revenue to guarantee free admission at the St. Louis Art Museum (a good thing, since the phrase “Dedicated to Art and Free to All” is engraved in the stone facade of its 1904 building), as well as the St. Louis Zoo, the St. Louis Science Center and the Missouri History Museum.

In 1988, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts went from pay-what-you-wish to free admission, with help from the Ford Motor Company, which supports Ford Free Museum Days at museums in five American cities. The Dayton Art Institute went free in 1994 with an endowment from Bank One. The Cincinnati Art Museum did the same in 2003 with an endowment from the Richard and Lois Rosenthal Foundation. Ford sponsorship and parking garage fees enabled the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., to go free in 1998. And it will remain free when its new wing, designed by the architect Stephen Holl, opens next June.

Of course, the Smithsonian’s Washington art museums and the National Gallery of Art are free. They are supported almost entirely by taxpayer dollars, which makes it hard to deny that the public owns them. Other museums that have long been free include the great Cleveland Museum of Art; the Toledo Art Museum in Ohio; the Kimbell Art Museum, the Menil Collection and the Amon Carter Museum in Texas; the Des Moines Art Center; the Virginia Fine Arts Museum in Richmond; and the Timken Museum of Art in San Diego. These museums usually charge for special exhibitions and have donation boxes prominently displayed. The J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles is free.

Finally, the Brooklyn Museum, the Seattle Art Museum and the Detroit Institute of Arts are among the encyclopedic big-city museums that, like the Met, have pay-what-you-wish policies, with suggested admissions ranging from $5 to $8. A glaring exception is the Art Institute of Chicago, which on June 3 converted its $12 admission from suggested to mandatory. A press release huffed that the change is “NOT a fee increase,” citing research that showed most visitors already pay the full admission. But given that one could get in for a penny before, the increase is astronomical. The Art Institute is free one evening a week (two in summer), thanks to Ford.

Maybe the free-for-all pledge has to be preceded by a freer-for-all pledge: museums that charge admission should get serious about expanding both their free times and the categories of people who are granted free admission. (The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston sets a standard of almost cynical frivolousness: anyone named Isabella gets in free. The Los Angeles County Museum, which is open till 8 p.m. five days a week and till 9 on Fridays, is free after 5, the result of sponsorship from Target.)

Big museums in Philadelphia, Boston and especially New York, the country’s most expensive, should shake off their sense of incurious entitlement and try their hardest in this regard. The Philadelphia Art Museum, which charges $12 for adults normally, is pay-what-you wish all day Sunday. The Whitney Museum (normally $15) and the Guggenheim ($18) are pay-what-you-wish for a few hours on Friday evenings, while the Modern, thanks to Target, is free from 4 to 8 p.m. Friday.

Museums speak of wanting to attract larger, more democratic audiences. They cannot even begin to know this audience, much less accommodate it, until they lower the barriers, at least to their permanent collections. Doreen Bolger, director of the Baltimore Museum, told The Washington Post that the number of nonwhite visitors nearly tripled during the museum’s free hours. Nor can museums begin to know themselves until they make reduced admission a top priority and start combing through their budgets to see how to make it happen.

The spokeswoman for the Toledo Art Museum, whose free admission is dictated by its 1901 charter and supported by its endowment, summed it up: “Our founders had a huge institutional commitment to always remaining free.”

According to the Association of Art Museum Directors, museums earn an average of 5 percent of their revenue from admissions. The Met and the Whitney say their admission revenues constitute 12 percent; the Modern says 15 percent. While these amounts are hardly negligible, there are other sources for this money, including corporate donations. And eliminating admission fees can attract new community support. When the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston stopped charging admission in 1995, public donations increased enough to make up for the loss of income.

If museums were to broadcast unequivocally that their first priority is art and the public’s contact with art, their public image would improve and sharpen. And other things about them would start to change, from the people who sit on their boards, to the buildings they build.

While the art world often wonders out loud if art can change society, it seems fairly certain that museums can. They put us in touch with the world and its history. They reveal to us our own feelings, talents and capacities, shaping our idea of what we can become. They give us the visual equivalent of things sorely needed today: an understanding of difference, and therefore, of tolerance.

In times as dire as ours, everything matters more than art. Yet in such times, art matters more than ever.

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