Museums enjoy their free for all

The Baltimore Sun

The gamble of free admissions at Baltimore's two largest art museums seems to be paying off.

Admissions are soaring, and both the Baltimore Museum of Art and The Walters Art Museum report that they are attracting a more diverse crowd than ever before.

Museum memberships have decreased, as was expected, but total donations are up. Make no mistake - challenges lie ahead. But the museum's administrators are triumphantly declaring their bold free-for-all experiment a success.

"I come to the museum nearly every weekend and walk through the galleries," says Doreen Bolger, the Baltimore Museum of Art's director. "There's a tangible difference, not just in our total numbers, but in the variety of our visitors, and in the way that people are relaxing on the benches and interacting with our artwork."

Baltimore's experiment reflects a continuing debate among American art museums. Most still charge admission fees. Some, such as the Indianapolis Museum of Art, joined other free museums this year. Others, such as the Philadelphia Museum of Art, not only are keeping fees but are increasing them.

Aided by an $800,000 grant from Baltimore City and county officials, the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Walters officially dropped their $10 admission charge last October. That move generated widespread community goodwill and inspired a spin-off program in which performing groups throughout the city also offered a series of no-charge, ticketless performances. That program, called Freefall Baltimore, also begins its second year tomorrow.

In the past year, total attendance at the Walters has increased a whopping 55 percent, to about 193,000 visitors. The BMA is recording a more measured, but still impressive, 15 percent jump, to an estimated 233,400 guests for the 11-month period ending Aug. 31.

"There was a pent-up desire for the BMA, and free membership has unleashed it," Bolger says.

Both museums estimate that new visitors make up about a third of their total audience. In addition, the proportion of African-Americans patronizing the Walters has doubled from 10 percent of all guests when an admission fee was charged, to 20 percent now.

"It's exhilarating," says Gary Vikan, the Walters' director.

"I can't tell you what a positive impact this has had on the staff. Our mission is to bring art and people together, and that's exactly what we're doing," he says. "It's a very enriching way of being a museum professional."

The Baltimore Museum of Art hasn't recorded the race of its visitors, but Bolger said that anecdotally, the staff is convinced that the diversity of the audience has increased substantially.

But, to paraphrase an old bromide, there's no such thing as a free art museum.

One of the hidden costs of going free is that paid memberships drop. The BMA has lost about 10 percent of its members, while the Walters says that membership has declined 25 percent.

Both Bolger and Vikan say the bulk of the decrease comes from those who buy an annual membership but don't donate additional funds. For this group, joining the museum was an economic decision (an annual membership costs less than buying several separate admissions) rather than an altruistic one.

In fact, the BMA raised more than $1 million this year from large donors who gave at least $1,000 to the museum - a record amount in this category, and $1.93 million in annual support, a slight increase over last year's pledges of $1.86 million.

"Our decision to go free has generated incredible financial support for this museum," Bolger says.

To defray some of the costs of going free and to bolster membership, both museums are mounting special, ticketed exhibitions. For instance, at the end of October, the BMA will open the first major U.S. exhibition of Matisse's sculpture in more than 40 years. Museum members won't be charged for admittance, but nonmembers will pay $15.

The BMA has also scheduled ticketed exhibits for future years: Picasso and the Circus Family in 2009, and Cezanne and American Modernism for 2010.

Next week, the Walters opens D?j? Vu, which addresses the question of repetition in French masterpieces, and Maps: Finding Our Place in the World, which is being billed as the most ambitious American exhibition of its kind in the past 50 years. This is the first time, Vikan says, that the Walters has mounted two special exhibitions in the same year.

But going free isn't an option for every museum.

"Baltimore has set the standard for going free, but it's a unique standard," says Mimi Gaudieri, executive director of the Association of Art Museum Directors. "Every city is different - the makeup of the community, the makeup of visitors, the size, the tax structure. There's no one rule for how they operate."

Roughly two-thirds of museums nationwide currently charge for admission, and there doesn't appear to be an impetus for going in one direction or the other.

For example, the Indianapolis Museum of Art dropped its $7 admission charge in January; during the past five years, museums in Kansas City and Cincinnati have done the same.

"For whatever reason, art museums are seen as exclusionary and hard to fathom," says Maxwell Anderson, director and chief executive of the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

"We have to make a better case for ourselves than a lot of other attractions. And one way to do that is by offering free admission.

"Once you start charging admission, you gin up your programs to attract members. You start thinking about your exhibitions in terms of how many tickets you will sell, and not on the quality of the experience you're offering."

In contrast, the Philadelphia Museum of Art increased its fee from $12 to $14 in July.

Other museums announcing increases in admissions during the past few years include the Art Institute of Chicago and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Gaudieri estimates that the median cost to a museum for each visitor in 2007 is $127, which includes salaries, insurance, security, educational programs and conservation, among other expenses.

"People don't understand what it costs to run an institution," she says. "They pay a $10 admission fee, and they think that covers it, but it doesn't even come close. On average, admissions only account for 5 percent of a museum's operating budget."

Midsize cities such as Baltimore - with regional museums that draw visitors primarily from the surrounding areas - are likely to fare best by going free, she says.

"The overhead costs in cities like New York and Los Angeles are tremendous," Gaudieri says. "Tourists can help defray some of those expenses. If every museum had the funding available, they would all go free."

Baltimore has that funding in place, but only for two years. Each museum must raise $5 million by Sept. 30, 2009, to remain free indefinitely.

To date, the BMA has received $2 million in pledges. The Walters has not yet begun its fundraising campaign.

"This experiment has been so successful that it will continue," Vikan says. "We'll raise the $5 million. It's not a question of if. It's a question of when."

For the first year, directors have concentrated on making the new policy work.

"We went free on very short notice," Bolger says. "It was like taking a giant boulder and throwing it into a pond. There were all these ripples that affected everything we do."

For instance, in the past year, the BMA has more frequently rotated the sculptures, paintings, drawings and precious objects in its galleries.

"There's a feedback system between the people and the art and the finances," Bolger says.

"We're constantly changing our collection. Not charging admission gives us not only the freedom, but the mandate to do that. More people are coming to the museum, and they're visiting more often. They're more aware of subtle changes. We want to give them something new to enjoy each time they walk through our doors."

For his part, Vikan thinks that dropping admission fees has allowed the Walters to become more integrated into the community.

"Museums can be places where there is a great exchange of ideas," he says.

"The Internet has brought about a number of changes in our culture that in many ways are very healthy, and a museum can be one manifestation of that. We aren't an authority on a mountaintop. We don't own the artwork, and we don't own the answers to it.

"The message that going free has sent is that the museum belongs to you."

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