In my introduction to yesterday’s rant about weak arguments against the Mendel Art Gallery’s expansion plans I mentioned that during the debate some members of Saskatoon City Council brought up the issue of charging admission to the gallery. The debate on admission fees isn’t just a local one. This post is a compilation of links to blogs, articles, and papers that look at the issue.
I should note my biases up-front. I consider myself a fiscal conservative, and in general am not opposed to reasonable user fees. I am aware that this is a divisive issue and that the debate usually gets polarized between the “free access for all” and “we must implement user fees” camps. In many ways the debate has a lot in common with the legal wrangling about copyright and intellectual property, or open source versus proprietary software. Perhaps I’ll write about those similarities in the future. For now, I want to focus on links to information specifically about admission fees to public art galleries. Be forewarned: this is a fairly extensive info-dump. Also note that much of this information may be familiar as I’ve compiled and edited this post from a series of emails I sent to the public relations people at the Mendel.
Some months ago I had stumbled upon an article or blog post that looked at a number of US art galleries and museums and compared admissions as a part of the overall balance sheet. It looked at total admissions revenue versus total budget and numbers of visitors, and included some comments about the cost of collecting admissions fees vs. total fees collected. In the case of some of the smaller midwestern US sites it seemed to cost more to administer the admissions policy than was actually collected. It wasn’t a major study, and in fact might have been little more than what I’ve summarized, but there were links and actual numbers. I believe these numbers were culled from various public documents. My search for the elusive article—which I never did find—led me on a merry internet chase for a couple of days. Although I ultimately failed in my search I found a wealth of relevant information on both sides of the issue.
Research Roundup 1: Mostly about eliminating fees in UK and Sweden
My first round of searching led me to a handful of articles and snippets about the abolition of admission fees in the Europe. I’ll go chronologically from oldest to newest:
Journal of Cultural Economics, June 1998
Abstract: This  paper argues that it is in the interest of the museum profession and the public to halt the further spread of charging for admission to museums. The paper first examines the historical development of admission regimes for museums. Research into the likely impact of charging at the British Museum is then reviewed. The final section compares the level of subsidy at charging and non-charging museums.
This article (from Journal of Cultural Economics Volume 22, Numbers 2-3 / June, 1998) looks interesting, but I didn’t want to pay for access. Those who have a larger financial investment in the issues may want to shell out the cash so they can read it. Springerlink has more instructions on how to do so.
UK, December 2002
The Culture, Media and Sport Committee has agreed to the following Report:
NATIONAL MUSEUMS AND GALLERIES: FUNDING AND FREE ADMISSION
It’s a UK government study in favour of eliminating admission fees. Notable points of the summary include points 1 and 5:
1. The museums and galleries in the UK constitute a treasure trove of artistic, cultural, historical and scientific artefacts and expertise. Together they represent a living resource that significantly enriches many people’s lives and has the potential to do so for many more. Moreover, this resource makes substantial contributions to the welfare of the country as a whole, including to education and lifelong learning (both formal and informal), to the UK’s attraction for overseas visitors (both scholars and tourists) and to the country’s high status in the world of science and many other disciplines. Perhaps most importantly these institutions are also fun and fascinating places to visit.
5. The support for the principle of free admission has been unanimous in the evidence we have received (albeit alongside a range of thoughtful qualifications). We believe that free admission for everyone to all the museums and galleries funded by the Department is an excellent joint achievement by the Government and the institutions involved and one which must not be allowed to go astray. The chief risks are the deterioration of the real value of public funding for these bodies and the reappearance of stresses and pressures on museums and galleries that caused some to introduce charging in the first place during the mid-1980s.
Los Angeles Times, December 2006
In December 2006, Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight lists his “Best of 2006.” Part way down the page is this:
Britain recently released figures showing an average 83% rise in visits to museums that formerly charged admission. By announcing their abolition of general admission fees, three major American institutions — the Indianapolis Museum of Art, the Baltimore Museum of Art and that city’s Walters Art Gallery — embraced an exemplary mission of public service over profit-driven cultural tourism.”
The text I’ve quoted is the full extent of Knight’s comment on the issue. Unless he wrote about it more fully in a previous article. I didn’t investigate further.
Moderna Museet in Stockholm Sweden, 2004-2007
They abolished entrance fees when they reopened in 2004 after a major renovation, a fact that is noted at the bottom of this page:
Another major new feature at the reopening was the introduction of museum hosts – people who have a variety of skills, from life-saving to being able to tell visitors about the works of art in both the permanent and temporary exhibitions. The reason for introducing new hosts was to cater for the large increase in visitor numbers since the admission fee was abolished.
Their visitor numbers are astonishing: doubling from 300k to 600k after reopening and eliminating the fee. Of course, they reintroduced admission fees on 1 January 2007: SEK80 (around C$13 and change). This particular example shows that the pendulum swings both ways. I am curious to know the financial impact of the process of going from fee to free and back again. What did it cost to eliminate fees? To re-implement them? But I’m not curious enough that I’m going to dig through financial statements.
Research Roundup 2: American Institutions
Edited by James Cuno. With essays by James Cuno, Philippe de Montebello, Glenn D. Lowry, Neil MacGregor, John Walsh, and James N. Wood. 2006, Princeton University Press.
Here’s a full copy-and-paste from the Princeton University Press website:
During the economic boom of the 1990s, art museums expanded dramatically in size, scope, and ambition. They came to be seen as new civic centers: on the one hand as places of entertainment, leisure, and commerce, on the other as socially therapeutic institutions. But museums were also criticized for everything from elitism to looting or illegally exporting works from other countries, to exhibiting works offensive to the public taste.
Whose Muse? brings together five directors of leading American and British art museums who together offer a forward-looking alternative to such prevailing views. While their approaches differ, certain themes recur: As museums have become increasingly complex and costly to manage, and as government support has waned, the temptation is great to follow policies driven not by a mission but by the market. However, the directors concur that public trust can be upheld only if museums continue to see their core mission as building collections that reflect a nation’s artistic legacy and providing informed and unfettered access to them.
The book, based on a lecture series of the same title held in 2000-2001 by the Harvard Program for Art Museum Directors, also includes an introduction by Cuno and a fascinating–and surprisingly frank–roundtable discussion among the participating directors. A rare collection of sustained reflections by prominent museum directors on the current state of affairs in their profession, this book is without equal. It will be read widely not only by museum professionals, trustees, critics, and scholars, but also by the art-loving public itself.
James Cuno is President and Director of the Art Institute of Chicago; Philippe de Montebello is Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Glenn D. Lowry is Director of the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Neil MacGregor is Director of the British Museum, London; John Walsh is Director Emeritus of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; and James N. Wood is Former President and Director of the Art Institute of Chicago.
New York art journalist Lee Rosenbaum
The link for the book “Whose Muse” came from this Thursday, July 13, 2006 blog post from Lee Rosenbaum (blogging as Culturegrrl). I’ve included most of post below. It was part of an ongoing discussion/media circus centered around the Met’s raising of its admission fee by 33% in the summer of 2006. Links in the quoted text below are inactive because I’m being lazy, but you can go to the original source if you want clickable linky goodness.
Lowry and de Montebello on Admission Fees
Relevant to the current brouhaha over museum admissions fees are these comments by Glenn Lowry, director of the Museum of Modern Art, and Philippe de Montebello, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, excerpted from a roundtable discussion by major museum directors published in Whose Muse: Art Museums and the Public Trust. (The Met has just announced an increase of its suggested admission fee for non-senior adults to $20, effective Aug. 1. MoMA instituted the same fee, as mandatory, when it reopened in November 2004, after its expansion.)
Glenn Lowry: I think there are different factors that come into play here. On one level it’s almost a moral duty that museums should be free. Our collections are part of everyone’s cultural heritage. We should make them available in as broad a way as possible. And an admission fee is one of the greater barriers to attendance.
Philippe de Montebello: Wait a minute. Can we be both practical and philosophical? On the matter of barriers, the people who squawk most about the cost of a museum pay huge amounts of money to go to rock concerts, sports events, all of which are very expensive. I don’t buy that “barrier” thing. Philosophically, what is it about a work of art that makes it mandatory that it should be available for nothing, whereas the C Sharp Minor Quartet Opus 131 of Beethoven should be paid for, that Aida should be paid for, that Ibsen should be paid for? What is [it] about art that it shouldn’t be paid for?
Glenn Lowry (later in the discussion): Part of me wants museums to be free because there is a sense that our collections and visitors’ experiences of them belong to the public at large and should be available to anyone regardless of cost. Another part of me, though, says, why should it be free? Why should this treasured experience be free, especially for an entity that gets virtually no government funding? And by making it free, are we inadvertently devaluing it?
Populism or pragmatism? It seems to me that the “suggested fee” concept is still the best compromise. But it also seems to me that free admission, far from devaluing the art, is valuing the public.
One Last Hurrah Before I Suspended My Search
I decided to give up on the search for the elusive article that prompted all of the above links, but not before finding an interesting discussion centred around the Met’s admission fee hike in the summer of 2006. The discussion takes place in an open thread of one of my regular reads, the blog of NYC art dealer Edward Winkleman. As Winkleman notes in the passage I’ve quoted below, the discussion generally goes back and forth between proponents of pay-to-use and those in favour of free, open access.
Note that the Edward_ in the quoted text is the owner of the blog, not me.
so there’s a split: one side feels the folks who can pay the fee should put up and shut up
the other side feels museums should be free to all
I fall somewhere inbetween. I don’t mind paying full price for entry if I’m making a day of it, but sometimes I’m just popping in quickly for research or whatever, and the full fee then seems too much.
yes, membership solves that, but I can’t buy membership to every museum in town (well, I could if I didn’t eat on Thursdays, but…)
The full discussion is here. I think that Winkleman summarizes the situation quite well, and I find myself in a similar position to his: the middle ground.