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Free admission hasn't stopped attendance slide at Baltimore art museums — and other solutions prove elusive, too

Eleven years ago, when Baltimore’s two largest art museums joined a nationwide trend by announcing that they would drop admission fees, the news was applauded in newspapers from New York to Detroit to Jackson, Miss. The policy was credited with inspiring Free Fall Baltimore, a monthlong slate of free arts activities. The museums’ directors predicted the move would jump-start attendance and make their audiences more diverse.

“There was a pent-up desire,” Doreen Bolger, then director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, said, “and free membership has unleashed it.”

There was just one problem: That pent-up desire didn’t last. After initial surges in attendance, museums in Baltimore and nationwide that went free soon resumed losing visitors at alarming rates.

A decade later, museum officials are still scrambling to devise ways to reverse the slide.

Some, such as Washington’s Hirshhorn Museum, mount blockbuster shows designed to attract every art lover within a given radius. Others, including the Baltimore Museum of Art, are making long-term investments in their communities.

They think it’s impossible to develop a new audience of art lovers without first fixing long-term social ills.

Still others sidestep the stuffiness that can hamper traditional institutions, foregoing standard art-world protocols and inventing their own rules. The American Visionary Art Museum, for instance, has bucked a nationwide trend and more than doubled its attendance in the past two decades by forging its own idiosyncratic path.

Each remedy has advantages — and drawbacks. If there’s a panacea, arts administrators have yet to find it.

Attendance at the Walters Art Museum has declined 18.6 percent over the last 15 years. At the Baltimore Museum of Art it’s down 12.7 percent. Nationwide, attendance at art museums dropped 16.8 percent.

Perhaps no potential remedy has been greeted with as much fanfare — or is as hotly debated in museum circles — as the one that hasn’t worked.

Read Part 1: In Baltimore and nationwide, art museums fight sharp declines in attendance »

American museums have long been ambivalent about requiring the public to pay to view the priceless paintings and sculptures that are part of the human heritage. Most art galleries have been free at some point — at times, for decades — and most have gone through a period of charging admission. Now, according to the American Alliance of Museums, about one-third of museums in the United States are free.

New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art ignited a mini-firestorm this month when it announced it would begin charging $25 admission for out-of-state visitors instead of requiring an unspecified donation. An online petition of protest had collected over 22,000 signatures as of Tuesday morning.

Studies conducted over the past two decades have found little correlation between attendance and admission rates.

“Lowering the price of admission or eliminating it doesn’t mean that suddenly, more people will want to come to your museum,” said Zannie Voss, director of the National Center for Arts Research in Texas. “If your museum goes free so that people of a lower economic status can participate, you still have to get them through the door the first time. And you have to give them such an engaging experience they’ll want to come back.”

If museums’ only goal were to wow ever-larger crowds, every administrator in America would know exactly how to achieve it. But the one seemingly sure-fire solution might cause more problems than it solves.

Behold the blockbuster.

These mega-shows dominated the museum world toward the end of the 20th century. In 1995, a Claude Monet exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago attracted 965,000 art lovers over 18 weeks and contributed $393 million to the regional economy, the Chicago Tribune reported. A Johannes Vermeer show at the National Gallery of Art in Washington the same year was thronged by 327,500 museum-goers in 72 days, according to the museum.

Blockbusters still exist; the Hirshhorn set attendance records in 2017 when the museum as a whole received 475,000 visitors during the nearly three months that it mounted Yayoi Kusama’s “Infinity Mirrors” exhibit.

The line of people hoping to snap up a walk-up pass began forming daily around 7:30 a.m. and frequently stretched around the block by the 10 a.m. opening. A pair of free passes fetched upwards of $250 online.

The BMA mounted a mini-blockbuster of its own last year. The museum is crediting its “Matisse/Diebenkorn” exhibit with boosting attendance from 209,000 in fiscal year 2016 to 246,100 one year later.

But in the 21st century, blockbusters have become less common and they’re smaller in scale, a decline that coincides roughly with the beginning of the attendance slide, according to statistics kept since 1982 by the National Endowment for the Arts.

The mammoth exhibits are super-expensive and labor-intensive. Museum directors have tired of watching visitors hurry through their galleries on their way to the big touring show without so much as glancing at the less flashy treasures on display year-round.

Julia Marciari-Alexander, director of the Walters Art Museum, wonders if she’d truly be serving the public by cramming as many bodies into the galleries as fire codes will allow.

Read Part 3: Art museums, in Baltimore and beyond, let the internet pass them by. Now, they're starting to catch on »

“What you don’t get at a blockbuster show,” she said, “is an intimate experience with a great work of art.”

BMA Director Christopher Bedford isn’t strictly opposed to blockbusters. But he thinks they don’t eliminate the underlying causes of the attendance decline, because they mostly reach an existing audience instead of creating a new one.

“Art is deeply transformative,” he said. “Art changes people, and people change the world we live in.”

Some institutions focus on winning young people over, whether that means loaning original artworks to college students, as the Williams College Museum of Art has done, or sentencing young people convicted of crimes to art enrichment programs, like the one at Massachusetts’ Sterling and Francine Clark Museum.

Bedford runs a museum located in city with a population that’s 63.3 percent black, and where 26.8 percent of the population lives in poverty. He thinks it’s essential that his museum have more African-American visitors.

Between 2002 and 2015, the average visitor to the BMA became 12 years younger (she’s now 44), and the proportion of black visitors increased from 3 to 13 percent, a museum spokeswoman said.

Still, that hardly represents Baltimore’s population. Bedford doesn’t think he’ll be able to change that situation without first conquering the social ills that keep some potential art lovers hungry and under-educated.

“Museums have historically seen their purview as delivering high culture to anybody willing to consume it,” Bedford has said. He and the Los Angeles-based artist Mark Bradford are planning weekly silk-screening workshops for at-risk youth. The workshops at the Greenmount West Community Center will teach young people art and business skills they can use to escape poverty.

“If you want to engage a child or teen population, you have to first deal with the fundamental challenges they face that take priority over the consumption of art,” Bedford said. “If someone is starving for lack of food, it would be irresponsible to foist art on that person.”

Also in the works: a plan to launch a satellite art gallery inside Lexington Market to showcase multicultural visual artists, many of them local. The gallery could open in 2019.

Bedford knows his big plans could take generations to succeed.

“We’re aiming,” he said, “not for a spike in attendance, but a complete transformation in our audience. Achieving that won’t be easy, but it would be a profound victory.”

Bedford is one type of path-breaker. AVAM founder Rebecca Hoffberger is another. Her goal is to use art to awaken the sense of playfulness and wonder that is the essence of creative thought.

Most museum directors have doctorates in museum administration or art history. Hoffberger studied mime with Marcel Marceau, founded a ballet company and established field hospitals in Nigeria. She’s not afraid to say she wants her museum to be “womblike” or to playfully kiss a visitor’s hand.

That demonstrative style belies Hoffberger’s innate shrewdness and firm grasp of the bottom line. She combines an obsessive attention to detail with a sense of humor and the flair of a circus ringmaster. For the past 22 years, she’s flouted conventional wisdom for museum success.

Hoffberger doesn’t fill her gallery with exhibits accompanied by catalogs crammed with learned academic essays that terrify the unwary. Instead, her museum showcases Fifi, a 14-foot tall pink poodle on wheels, and Emily Duffy’s gigantic ball made from 18,000 bras. She’s always asking herself how ordinary Baltimoreans will react to every aspect of the institution, from the artworks to the color of the paint on the walls.

“I’m always trying to recreate that first museum experience you had as a kid,” she said, “the one that made you gasp and go, ‘Oh my God.’ ”

AVAM receives far less government funding than its Baltimore peers: $281,000 in state, county and city funds in 2017, compared to the $2 million to $4 million received annually by the Walters, the BMA and the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture. (Unlike the Walters or the BMA, however, AVAM doesn’t bear the cost of preserving 2,000-year-old artifacts.)

Hoffberger’s museum has blithely ignored the free admission trend, charging by far the highest prices — $15.95 for adults — of all four museums.

And yet visitors keep coming. AVAM has more than doubled its attendance in the past 15 years, from 48,500 in 2002 to 116,664 in 2017. Hoffberger has been approached about opening a branch of AVAM on the West Coast.

Three members of the Brucker family from California visited the museum last year, drawn by the bling-encrusted school bus parked outside and the wind-powered whirligig atop the building. They ventured inside and spent more than an hour wandering from object to object.

“This whole museum,” Sue Brucker said, “is a visual playground for the senses, eye candy for the soul.”

AVAM’s success is why Elizabeth Merritt, director of the Center for the Future of Museums, still finds reason for hope for art museums despite the daunting attendance statistics.

“All our arts institutions grew up around deeply human impulses and needs,” she said.

“If the form they’ve taken has become out of touch with contemporary society, that just means they need to adapt. It doesn’t mean that there’s no more need for the arts. It just means we have to experiment with the delivery method.

“And, that’s totally doable.”

mmccauley@baltsun.com

twitter.com/mcmccauley

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