In a 1995 report commissioned by the Smithsonian Institution, there was concern that “some members of the public might think of [museums] as exclusionary bastions of elitist privilege. This mistaken image can be particularly painful for those in the museum profession who sincerely believe that the benefits of their educational efforts should be available to all without regard for distinctions of race or ethnicity, class, age or physical disability.
In a 1995 report commissioned by the Smithsonian Institution, there was concern that “some members of the public might think of [museums] as exclusionary bastions of elitist privilege. This mistaken image can be particularly painful for those in the museum profession who sincerely believe that the benefits of their educational efforts should be available to all without regard for distinctions of race or ethnicity, class, age or physical disability.” The Smithsonian is a rarity among museums in that it offers free admission to the public. It is usually regarded as one of America’s finest art and history institutions. As far as the worry that some are seen as elitist, a key reason may have to do with the price of admission.
While the Smithsonian is free to all, the Museum of Modern Art in New York charges $20 to view its collection. This limits access by most of the population. Art is something that enhances the lives of all who are exposed to it. Especially in a time when most of our schools nationwide have had their art programs reduced greatly, if not cut altogether. It’s not just young people who benefit from going to museums, but they are the ones who will attend museums in the future, and they need to have access now.
Free admission was a cornerstone of most American museums in the 1920s, and again in the 1960s-’70s, according to Marjorie Schwarzer of the San Jose Museum of Art. Since then, the price of running museums has risen steadily, and the solution was usually raising prices of admission and membership. While the British Museum in London began charging admission in 1990, they went back to being free in 2001, and have seen their attendance jump in the six years since then. Most museums that have followed suit have seen their percentage of profit from grants and donations jump, which some museum members attribute to the public’s perception of the museum changing. Many people begin to think of museums more as a part of the community when they are free, and less as a business.
In 2005, the San Jose Museum of Art started looking at the pros and cons of changing from a set admission price to being a donation-based entry. They recruited Dan Keegan as the museum director in 2000, and he decided to change from charging to free admission. Since 2000, the attendance at the museum has increased every year. While many people on the museum board were worried about a loss of profits, they found that they were making more money than when they charged, due to grants and a rise in donations from attendees to the museum. It turned out that the lack of a fee actually drew more visitors every year. In a speech to the board in 2005, Keegan expressed his feelings of success in attracting a much more diverse group of people. Since becoming free, the minority and low-income attendance rate has risen exponentially. Also, the number of middle- and high-income visitors increased as well, since they could drop in for a short while multiple times and not feel as though they had overpaid.
Over the past few years here in Portland, there have been more and more free days at the Portland Art Museum. The public’s response has been overwhelming, to say the least. On a recent Memorial Day, free admission was offered and there was a line around the museum from the time it opened until it closed. The new director of the museum, Brian Ferriso, has expressed his interest in having free days much more frequently. The main purpose of a museum is to expose the public to art and culture, and having a financial barrier that excludes a huge portion of the population limits that mission.
As citizens of Portland, we need to look at other cities and decide which direction we want to go in terms of access to cultural institutions. We should applaud the Portland Art Museum’s attempts to democratize the experience of participation in art. Nobody in our city should be denied the right to expand their appreciation of culture because they cannot afford the price of a ticket. On the days when the museum is free, we should take advantage of it and donate even a small amount to show that we appreciate what they are trying to do. Art is about expanding the public’s consciousness, not about making money, and we need to raise our collective voices in support of this.