January 10, 2018; Chicago Tribune

Last week, the Chicago Park District Board announced modest admission fee increases for two of eleven institutions on Park District property—the Museum of Science and Industry and the Chicago History Museum. The week before that, the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced it was making significant changes to its almost-50-year-old blanket “pay-what-you-wish” admission policy, limiting that option to New York residents and imposing a range of fixed fees for other visitors. As of January 1st, admission to the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum increased by 25-40 percent. In each case, increasing operating costs were cited.

It’s a rough time to be in the business of running a nonprofit museum—on any scale, in any city. In some places, declining attendance and increasing expenses have forced the hands of administrators and boards and led to increased ticket prices, at least for some visitors. At the same time, visitors increasingly have higher expectations in terms of blockbuster shows, interactive experiences, and museum amenities—all of which cost real money.

A recent article in the Baltimore Sun notes that in Baltimore and elsewhere, declining museum attendance is also part of the problem, citing National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) reports that indicate attendance at US art museums has decreased by 16.8 percent in the last 15 years, even as the population has grown by 33 million people. Museums experiment with free admission on certain days or at certain times, or for specific groups of visitors. As noted in the Sun article:

Foot traffic at art museums climbed steadily throughout the 20th century. Now, for the first time in modern history, it’s falling. And the decline is expected to accelerate, a prospect that alarms museum officials.

The Sun article takes a deep dive into the history of American museums: how they originated, how they have evolved, and how critical it is for the country’s 35,000 art, science, and history museums—most of which were built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries—to develop effective strategies to attract new (and repeat) visitors and to make everyone feel welcome.

Creative pricing strategies may be part of the solution. For example, while some admission fees are going up in the Chicago museums mentioned earlier, Illinois teens may now visit the Chicago History Museum for free; previously, teens paid $12 to $14. Two of the Chicago Park District Museums remain free, four more raised their fees in recent years, and three others have had no fee increases in the last four years. And while out-of-state visitors to the Met in New York must now pay fixed fees—$25 general admission, $17 for seniors, $12 for students—their tickets are good for three consecutive days and also include admission to the Met Breuer and the Cloisters.

Across the museum landscape, seniors, students, and young children often benefit from free or deeply discounted admission fees. Many museums continue to offer free admissions to all at certain times, to ensure those who cannot afford to pay still have access. And NPQ has previously reported on programs that encourage low-income families to visit museums at very modest rates. Fees are often waived for school groups or deeply subsidized by grants. In the end, virtually every museum visit is, in fact, a subsidized visit; the cost of keeping the lights on and the doors open is far higher than what most visitors pay at the door. Grants (from foundations and various government entities), private donations, and even memberships help to offset admission costs for everyone.

Still, news of increasing admission fees—and in particular, the new fixed fees at the Met—have some critics questioning the fairness of ticket prices, challenging museum leaders to explore other options before raising their prices, and even suggesting that all museum admissions should be free. Writing for the San Francisco Chronicle, Michael O’Hare argues that museums should sell off some small fraction of their treasures—particularly those hidden away in storage that the public never sees—to endow free admissions in perpetuity. While deaccessioning pieces of collections is harshly sanctioned in museum circles, except to further build a collection, O’Hare makes a good argument for revisiting the rules and getting some buried treasures into other public or private collections.

But should all museum admissions be free? Probably not. In 2015, an NPQ newswire raised interesting points about the perceived benefits of free museum admissions in the UK versus paid admissions in the US.

A commentary by Alexandra Schwartz in the New Yorker bears the somewhat over-the-top headline, “The Metropolitan’s New Pay Policy Diminishes New York City.” Schwartz makes the case for swaying big donors to subsidize admission fees rather than putting their names on new buildings or public spaces, although she acknowledges, “It’s presumably easier to raise funds for a specific, tangible project, one that will allow the donor’s name to be inscribed on walls and fountains.”

Part of the problem with the Met’s (and, perhaps, any other museum’s) “pay-what-you-wish” policy is that visitors (including Schwartz) have increasingly been decreasing what they wish to pay:

The Met says that the change is an economic necessity. According to the Times, attendance over the past decade has gone way up, from 4.7 million visitors a year to seven million, but the proportion of visitors who pay the full suggested price has fallen from sixty-three per cent to seventeen. Admission fees provide forty-three million dollars a year, which amounts to 14 percent of the museum’s annual operating budget; the Met anticipates that that amount will now increase to forty-nine million dollars.

That additional $6 million may seem like a drop in the bucket for a cultural institution on the scale of the Met. And, philosophically speaking, Schwartz is probably correct when she says,

The people affected by the change will be families visiting our ruthlessly expensive city from out of state or from another country; students who have taken the bus or train to fill their heads with arts; immigrants without the right papers.

But as Schwartz concludes, relative to her own visits to the Met:

There’s another lesson in all this. More of us should pay our fair share. Ten years ago, more than half of visitors were paying the full price, and now it’s less than a quarter. Why have so many of us decided to be less generous? It can’t just be the clearer signage. I think it has to do with a sense that the Met is a monolith run on donor money that our admissions dollars sink without consequence, like so many pennies in one of David Koch’s fountains. Certainly, after all the news last year about the Met’s egregious mismanagement of funds, I felt no desire to give more. But habit is also to blame. It’s become second nature to me to pay five dollars and go in, without stopping to reconsider.

Perhaps for all visits to cultural institutions by those of us who want to see those institutions thrive and carry on into the future, it’s time to reconsider—not just the math, but the underlying reasons why we believe museums matter, for all of us, regardless of our ability to pay for admission.—Eileen Cunniffe