Should Art Museums be Free? While some may argue that art should be open for all, keeping a museum open is not cheap
Art museums can be found in cities all over the globe, with some displaying pieces of art from their native artists, and others displaying art from all over the world. In most cases they are open for the public—provided one pays a fee first. While they are a delight to art lovers globally, not everyone likes art. The National Endowment for the arts reported that from 2002 to 2012, art museum attendance dropped by 16.8%, despite a rise in the U.S. population. As museum attendance declines across the United States and museums scramble to find new ways to attract visitors, could waived ticket fees be the answer?
A report by the Association of Art Museum Directors found that in the United States, Mexico, and Canada, 61% of art museums charge an admission fee, 32% are free, and 7% ask for a suggested donation.
The Seattle Art Museum (SAM), has no set admission fee, instead opting to let visitors choose how much they pay for their “suggested admission fee.” On Bainbridge, the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art (BIMA) is free. In other U.S. cities, the Art Institute of Chicago charges $19-$25 depending on the age of the visitor (though Illinois residents receive a discounted price), and New York’s Museum of Modern Art and Metropolitan Museum of Art charge $14-$25 and $25, respectively. The Met used to follow a “pay-what-you-can” model for tickets, but as of 2018, made the $25 admissions fee mandatory instead of suggested. Only residents of New York State and students from a few nearby states are exempt and can still purchase suggested admission tickets.
While the Met’s decision to make the $25 fee mandatory drew criticism at the time, it has not deterred visitors. The museum’s attendance has risen for the past few years, suggesting that though an entrance fee may seem to displease potential visitors, those who want to go will still be willing to pay it.
Art museums, which require immense amounts of money for maintenance, administration, art-related activities, and revenue generating activities, get that funding, on average, from over twenty different sources. If art museums receive the funding that keeps them open from a variety of sources, would removing just one source make much difference? Unfortunately, yes.
On average, admissions fees only make up around 7% of an art museum’s total revenue, but that seven percent can be anywhere from $35,000 to $3,150,000 depending on the number of guests the museum sees in a year. In the same report cited earlier from the Association of Art Museum Directors, museums in the United States, Mexico, and Canada on average spend more per visitor than they make.Taking away admissions prices, or even making them suggested instead of mandatory, would leave a hole in the budgets of museums that need the money.
Not only do art museums display pieces from various places around the world, they also serve as windows into the past, giving their patrons the chance to view pieces of art created anytime, from decades to centuries ago. There are paintings that depict nobles in the garb of their time, commoners living their daily life, as well as snapshots of a day in nature. There are paintings that were created oceans away that reflect the political, religious, and social views of the time. While on the surface, art museums may just be a place to see art, the cultural history in every piece makes them more interesting than simply a place to see pretty drawings. In an ideal world, these institutions would not be barred by a pay wall, but without admissions money, already cash-strapped museums will have to search for new sources of revenue.’
That being said, there are art museums that do give visitors the chance to visit for free. New York’s Museum of Modern Art, is free Friday evenings from four to eight, and the SAM in Seattle is free on the first Thursday of every month.
Art museums are not set to go bankrupt soon. The National Endowment for the Arts, which funds art museums across the United States, has seen its funding rise in the past four years, despite fears that the program may be cut entirely. If the government is still willing to fund the arts, and visitors are still willing to pay the entrance fees, art museums will not be going anywhere for a while.