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Museums' art is priceless; viewing it will be free

After nearly a quarter-century of assessing admission fees, the city's two largest art museums - the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Walters Art Museum - soon will be free of charge.

The initiative, part of an unusual collaboration between city and county governments and the two art institutions, will be announced today at a ceremony in Druid Hill Park and will go into effect Oct. 1.

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The new policy, modeled on that of several other museums nationwide, including the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and the Cincinnati Art Museum, is aimed at boosting attendance, increasing visitor diversity and raising the city's profile as a tourist destination.

"Once you open the door and eliminate the fee, you've changed your relationship with the community," said Gary Vikan, director of the Walters Art Museum.

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Under the agreement, the city and Baltimore County have pledged to give an additional $200,000 to each of the museums next year, for a total of $800,000 in additional revenue. The institutions have asked the city and the county for a similar commitment over the next two years, administrators said.

In addition, Anne Arundel County is giving an additional $30,000 to each institution this year in support of the effort, and both museums hope to persuade Harford, Howard and Carroll counties to contribute.

"This is an investment in the future of the entire metropolitan area," Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. said in a statement. "I am delighted that both museums are approaching this initiative together for the benefit of the people."

Last year, the 72-year-old Walters, renowned for collections that span 5,000 years of art, attracted 133,484 visitors. The BMA, founded in 1914 and known for its Matisse and early Modernist works, drew 243,485 visitors.

Of the 30,000 schoolchildren who typically visit the Walters each year, more than 70 percent come from the surrounding counties. About 60 percent of the 25,000 who visit the BMA come from county schools.

Both museums were free until 1982, when they began charging $2 to offset operating costs; currently each charges a $10 general admission fee for adults.

"Both the BMA and the Walters were already thinking about free admission, and neither museum knew the other was trying to offer it," said Doreen Bolger, the BMA director. "This puts the city on the map as recognizing the importance of the arts."

The new admissions policy will coincide with Free Fall Baltimore, a citywide promotion aimed at making cultural activities more accessible to residents and visitors during October, which has been designated National Arts and Humanities Month.

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As part of Free Fall Baltimore, a separate $750,000 grant from the city will be used to help area cultural organizations present free performances, classes and other programs throughout the month. The elimination of admission fees at the Walters and the BMA will be a highlight of the program.

"Creating access to cultural institutions is a priority, because everybody needs to develop audiences to thrive, and we know for a fact that admissions are a barrier to accessibility," said Bill Gilmore, executive director of the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts.

"This says Baltimore is on a level with D.C., where the municipal museums are free, and from a tourism standpoint it's a wonderful opportunity to promote the city."

Since the Cincinnati Art Museum eliminated its general admission fee in 2003, attendance has increased about 17 percent, to 267,493. Last year, about 25 percent of the visitors were first-time museum-goers, said museum spokeswoman Natalie Hastings.

"There are a lot of barriers to museum access, but we felt admission was one of the main ones. Now that we've made it easier for everyone in the community to come, we've seen a more diversified audience," she said.

At the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, community groups such as the Red Hat Society, an organization whose membership is limited to women older than 50, have begun meeting in the museum.

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"A group of women in red hats, maybe 15 or 20 of them, visit our museum once a month," said Kaylen Whitmore, marketing director at the Minneapolis museum. "Would this be their regular gathering spot if it weren't free? I don't think so. This has become a place for people of limited means - or excessive means - to come and make connections with each other and the art we have on view."

Free admission is also a boon for parents.

"For a family of four to go to a movie -- without popcorn or soda - can cost $35," Whitmore said. "We have free admission and free parking. We make a great destination, especially on Sundays when we do family programming and hands-on art activities."

The Minneapolis institution attracted about 475,000 visitors last year, even though part of its building has been under construction, she said. In the late 1980s, when the museum charged a fee, it drew an annual average of about 309,000 visitors.

At the BMA, minority attendance has more than doubled, from 7 percent to 18 percent, on the first Thursday of each month, when admission is free, museum officials said.

Walters officials estimate that 25 percent of those who visit the museum do so during the three hours each Saturday when the museum charges no admission fee.

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"What this suggests is that we're going to get more people and more diversity" when admission is free, Vikan said. "You walk the galleries on Saturdays and you see a lot more people, a more diverse, younger crowd and lots of families."

The Walters, which has an operating budget of $11.8 million, and the BMA, which has an operating budget of $11.2 million, will use the additional city and county funds to offset revenue they lose from dropping admission fees and an anticipated temporary drop in membership (membership typically includes free admission). Admission fees make up about 2 percent of the museums' overall annual operating budgets.

The switch to free admission - although admission will be charged for some traveling exhibits - will require both museums to change their business models slightly to make up for lost revenue. Plans call for more aggressive fundraising targeting individuals and foundations.

"Each of us knew we couldn't do it alone; the government money gave us a jump-start," said Suzanne F. Cohen, chairwoman of the BMA board. "It never would have worked if it hadn't been a partnership from the start."

Initial reactions from potential museum-goers suggest that the new policy will be welcomed.

"I've got six kids," said Crystal Jones, 26, who lives in the city and works at a supermarket. "If it was free, they could go."

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Matthew Fischel, 27, an independent filmmaker in Mount Vernon who can't regularly afford the museums' admission fees, called the news "just fantastic. ... There's a lot of good things that can happen to a city, and making the museums free is high on the list."

glenn.mcnatt@baltsun.com linell.smith@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Sam Sessa contributed to this article.


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