(PHOTO: Butler Institute of American Art, one of many U.S. Museums with a free admission policy.)
I remember a story told to me in California about some travelers from Pittsburgh wondering around Europe, in a museum looking at dinosaur bones. One commented to the tune of “there’s nothing like this back in Pittsburgh.” Just then the other pointed to a label that indicated the item was a “copy of the original at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh.
Folks at the Carnegie have been busy recently renovating our famed dinosaur exhibit and it should be a time for a monster of a celebration. It is time for that celebration, unfortunately it will be accompanied by a stone-age decision.
The Carnegie announced this week admission prices will increase with the opening, by as much as eighty percent.
Undoubtedly this decision is rooted in a need for additional revenue in order to continue the improvements to the largely state-supported art and natural history museums. Unfortunately the move will likely result in making art and history less accessible in Pittsburgh. This is unfortunate for the public and for Pittsburgh as it continues to grow into a thriving community of art and artists.
Sadly it may not even accomplish the intended effect of increased revenue.
Take the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Walters Art Gallery, also in Baltimore, as an example. These institutions recently converted to a “free admission” policy and have since seen about a 15 percent increase in attendance, with a more diverse and younger audience. Some members also have upgraded memberships.
A Press release from the Walters and the BMA reported that during “Free Fall Baltimore” in October and November (2006), the BMA had 44,700 visitors and the Walters had 39,194 visitors—both among the highest attendance recorded for those months during the past five years.
The Baltimore Museum of Art’s total museum attendance was 124,125 visitors from October 1, 2006 through March 31, 2007, an 8 percent increase over a two-year average of the same period. More, first-time visitors made up 37 percent of admissions.
During October 2006, the first month of free admission, the BMA recorded 24,200 visitors—the highest attended October in the past five years. The BMA also had an 89 percent increase in participation of Sunday family art activities.
The Walters Art Museum’s total museum attendance was 103,531 visitors from October 1, 2006 through March 31, 2007, a 38 percent increase over the same six months of the previous year. First-time visitors made up 43 percent of admissions, an increase from a 36 percent average. The museum’s diversity in admissions rose to 18 percent persons of color, nearly doubling from spring 2005. During October 2006, the first month of free admission, the museum recorded 21,523 visitors—the second highest October attendance in the past five years and an 80 percent increase from October 2005. The museum has also experienced triple-digit growth in children and family art activities.
The Indianapolis Museum of Art also recently went “free.” Museum Director Maxwell Anderson told another publication that among the top 100 museums in America, excluding the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the average revenue from tickets to art museum budgets is about 4 percent, yet public and media focus when measuring museums is all about attendance.
No doubt, the move would seem to cost money. A lead gift of $800,000 from Baltimore City and Baltimore County allowed both museums to eliminate admission fees and become free to the public for the first time in two decades. Additional support for free admission was received.
One might suspect that if four percent of a typical museums total budget comes from admission that additional revenue in gift shops, cafe’s, parking and the like might more than make up the difference.
Of course a “free” program that seems to work in Cleveland, Indianapolis and Baltimore might not for some unknown factor work at the Carnegie. Still an eighty-percent increase in admission fees would seem to put further out of reach the treasures at Mr. Carnegie’s museum, making art and science less accessible to the masses. On one hand this may encourage more membership purchases, then result in more repeat visits, but how many families of four will be willing to dish out about $52 to attend? Is it enough to make them spring for the $130 family membership? Or will it make the visit to see the dinosaurs an infrequent or once in a childhood event?
What would Mr. Carnegie think?
“Mine be it to have contributed to the enlightenment and the joys of the mind, to the things of the spirit, to all that tends to bring into the lives of the toilers of Pittsburgh sweetness and light. I hold this the noblest possible use of wealth.”