Gallery Admission Fees Part 4: The Numbers Game

I started drafting this post a couple of weeks ago. It was to immediately follow my other three posts about gallery admission fees. I started writing it and petered out partly because I had already written almost 6000 words on the topic, and partly because I realized how many enemies I might make by posting it. For better or worse, I’ve since recovered my energy and resolve.

In this post I want to talk about numbers, audience, and accessibility but I’m mostly going to talk about numbers, and only briefly touch on the other two issues. I already know that this post is not likely to endear me to the staff at the Mendel, but I believe my questions should be thought about. Having said that, I must stress that in writing this I’m not attacking anyone. I believe that organizations like the Mendel Art Gallery should continue to exist, they should continuing exhibiting challenging work, and that they should continue to get the majority of their funding from public sources such as our tax dollars.

The question I keep asking myself is: Is the Mendel afraid that if they institute a fee, no one will come? What does this say about their programming, its relevance outside a specialist audience, and how the people at the Mendel see themselves vis a vis the wider, non-specialist public? In other words, if the gallery starts charging an admission fee—even a token amount—will people without a vested interest in contemporary art care enough to investigate something that many feel is irrelevant. If a gallery starts charging admission fees will anyone not in the “church of contemporary art” come?

This problem isn’t confined to visual arts. The topic of shifting demographics in the patronage of the “fine” arts warrants larger discussion. For now I’m simply going to point out that organizations such as symphony orchestras have been struggling for many years to keep themselves relevant—and solvent—in the face of declining audiences. Many have been forced by economic circumstances to swallow their artistic pride and present “pops” concerts. Many visual arts institutions have enacted similar strategies.

The other question I find myself wondering about is How do the numbers stack up? What do aggregate attendance numbers really tell us? This is pure conjecture on my part so I invite anyone with real data to please correct me, but I think the Mendel claimed 160,000 visitors in 2006. This works out to 440 visitors per day. Yet aside from openings, I rarely see more than a handful of visitors any time I go there. Perhaps I visit during off-peak hours. And I haven’t accounted for the school tours and other educational activities. But these numbers still stretch my credulity.

In a previous post I talked about the possibility of a tiered fee structure, one in which students were given free admission. Who are the majority of the Mendel’s visitors in a given year? If their current demographic is padded with students, then what are the actual numbers of paying visitors going to look like once fees are instituted? The Mendel is open 12 hours per day, 363 days per year. If we assume that they get 20 non-tour, non-school visitors per hour, every day they’re open, we come up with a number a bit shy of of 90,000 visitors per year. What happens when they start charging a fee? If we assume a token admission fee $3.00 and compare the numbers of before- and after- fees in Stockholm, where they went from free to about $13.00 and saw their numbers cut in half, then it’s possible that the Mendel’s visitor numbers will drop to somewhere between 45-60,000 annually. This would work out to $135k-$180k revenue. What is the administrative overhead to collect and account for this money? Does it make sense to go to the effort of collecting such a comparatively small sum in the name of—as some city councillors call it—revenue generation? How does this fit in with the overall current operating budget of the gallery? The post-expansion budget?

I will be the first to admit that a lot of my numbers are speculative. Many of my assumptions are probably flawed. But even if my numbers are wrong, I believe the structure and reasoning isn’t a whole lot different than if I was using real data.

Recently I read an interview with Kathy Halbriech, director of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. She speaks plainly about the funding challenges of art institutions. The interview comes in the wake of her announcement that she’s leaving her position at the Walker after being at the helm for something like the past 16 years. The interviewer is Tyler Green, keeper of a blog about modern and contemporary art on artsjournal.com called Modern Art Notes. The interview is from March 21, 2007. The bolding in the Halbriech quote is my own. Green asks “Is there anything in the contemporary art museum model that is broken, that needs to be fixed?” Halbriech answers:

My advice to any institution would be: Endow yourself well. It’s the most important thing you can do in buying yourself artistic freedom.

I basically think and this is something that Glenn Lowry and I had a lunchtime conversation about some time ago: We’re all undercapitalized. It’s easy to see that — it’s just difficult to figure out the multiple strategies to get yourself out of that position.

One of the things we’re finding that’s really fascinating is that our attend is moving disproportionately toward the free days. For us that’s Thursday nights and the first Saturday of every month. There’s a story in there. I will leave that for the next director to solve.

Admissions is a big deal in contemporary institutions, however I do think there’s no reason why people who can pay shouldn’t pay. I think what you have to provide is a gracious way for people who can’t pay to engage with the institution.

How can the Mendel endow itself? How do we change the funding system so that our arts organizations and artists can get off the treadmill of the grant system and into practices that are self-sustainable? I think the main reason I’ve spent so much time thinking and writing about this issue is to get at the larger issues of how society values its creative people, and the roles of artists in contemporary society. These are directly relevant to me as an artist right now simply because I’m trying to support myself from my art practice rather than depending on alternate sources of income. The Mendel situation fits into a broader context that raises a large number of questions pertaining to this subject.

At some point I want to talk about accessibility—financial as well as intellectual and aesethetic accessibility—but those are questions that need a great deal more thought on my part before I address them.

One thought on “Gallery Admission Fees Part 4: The Numbers Game

  1. Hi Ed,

    you know, it’s funny, I was just talking to someone about this last night who said that while the Mendel is considering instituting fees, other places which had them–heavyweights like the Moma, Met, and so on–are considering the elimination of fees. What is curious to me about this is that if you go to, say, the Met, there isn’t actually a fee, and there never has been; there is only a “suggested donation,” and while it’s clear to anyone who tries to get in free that this is a rare occurrance, it is nevertheless possible and built into their system.

    The question of affordability is problematic as well, because we can talk about financial affordability or temporal affordability. Are the people who cannot afford a few bucks to get into a gallery able to afford the couple of hours of leisure time that a thorough visit requires? If we’re going to be strictly capitalistic about it–here’s where I get a bit Swiftian–then people are already paying at least 16$ in wages for a 2-hour gallery visit, and that doesn’t include travel time (for instance a big hurdle that the MacKenzie in Regina has had to overcome is their location in the south end of the city, generally a fairly affluent section, and their subsequent distance from potential audiences who may be without cars or the luxury of walking time). If we’re talking about accessability, perhaps geographic accessibility can fit into that discussion somewhere.

    On the other hand, charging admission or a suggested donation may become a more symbolic gesture, with the connotation that “this stuff in here is worth paying to see,” although whether that is how it will play out or not is obviously subject to debate.

    I don’t have any answers, either. 🙂

    -Lee

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