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The Price Of Admission: How Museums Balance Sustainability And Access

Last week, The Metropolitan Museum of Art announced that it will start charging some visitors a mandatory admission fee. This comes after decades of a well-established pay-as-you-wish model.

Under the new terms, adult visitors from outside New York state will be charged $25; seniors will have to pay $17 and students will pay $12. Admission for children under 12 will remain free. The pay-as-you-wish policy will remain in place for all state residents as well as students from New Jersey and Connecticut.

Hyperallergic, an online arts magazine, reported that museum president Daniel Weiss said the current admission policy is “no longer effective." In 2004, said Weiss, "63 percent of visitors paid full price, but last year only 17 percent of visitors did. In that time, the suggested adult admission more than doubled, from $12 in 2004 to $25 today.”

At the Met, admissions currently make up 14 percent of the museum’s budget, but once the new policy is in place, leaders hope the fees will provide closer to 16 percent or 17 percent.

The announcement has sparked discussion among arts leaders nationwide about how museums balance sustainability with accessibility. The news also comes as two of Louisville’s major art museums -- the Speed Art Museum and the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft (KMAC) -- are managing free admission programs that are still relatively new.

And, as one of the nation’s seminal arts institutions, the Metropolitan Museum’s decision raises the question: Is discount admission a sustainable way to provide access?

'A thread in a very complicated fabric'

According to Stephen Reily, the director of the Speed Art Museum, the answer to that question is more than a simple yes or no.

“Admission charges get a lot of attention, and rightfully so, but it’s important to understand they are really just a thread in a very complicated fabric,” Reily said. “I know from my own experience, the admission charge is something that is really closely-related to the cost of membership, the cost of special exhibits, whether you charge for parking.”

Reily said when he attended a meeting of the Association of Museum Directors in May 2017, a lot of the discussion centered around how museums are managing a variety of different goals.

“You want the admission fee to be competitive when people look at the things they can spend money on, but it also relates really closely to how you get people to pay for membership,” Reily said. “We also want people to be in a long-term relationship with us as a museum and to be able to communicate with them, engage with them over time. And so charging admission is one way to incentivize membership. Other museums also charge for special exhibits, which can be extremely expensive.”

For reference, the Speed expects to spend about $1 million this year on temporary exhibits.

“And we need to find a way to pay for those outside of our everyday operating budget,” Reily said. “At the same time, we have a mission that wants to invite everyone to celebrate art at the Speed, and that means making it as accessible as possible. So, for us, the answer is finding welcoming partners who are subsidizing that accessibility.”

In 2016, the Speed Art Museum announced their Owsley Sundays. Thanks to a contribution from Brown-Forman, anyone can visit the Speed for free on Sundays through March 2021. The free Sunday admission is named in honor of the late Owsley Brown II.

“And Sundays are actually a very successful day for selling memberships at the Speed,” Reily said. “Our guest relations people at the front desk are able to communicate with people about what they gain about entering into a longer-term relationship with us through membership.”

Also in 2016, KMAC received sponsorship from Delta Dental of Kentucky through its Making Smiles Happen Charitable Initiative to offer free year-round general admission; they are entering another full year of that partnership.

Museums Need to Think Outside the Budget Box

But according to Aldy Milliken, the executive director of KMAC, in addition to corporate sponsorships, museums increasingly need to think outside the box to cover their operating budget while staying accessible.

“Museums need money to finance our operations,” Milliken said. “That’s just not a surprise and one of the things I really responded to with the Met situation was that it wasn’t a particularly creative solution to reaching more earned income.”

In a follow-up text, Milliken pointed to a new program at KMAC that’s about to launch which will hopefully serve as an incentive for more people to become supporting members of the museum.

He wrote: “KMAC Museum has partnered with local businesses to offer our members special discounts and to promote our local business owners.”

Some of these partners include Quill’s Coffee, Craft Gallery, Proof on Main and Atlantic No. 5.

“I think this conversation that the Metropolitan has inspired is, ‘How are we going to pay for museums?’” Milliken said. “What is the value of an institution?’ What are the broad-based ways we can support museums?”

He continued: “But what excites me right now about Louisville and the changes we are going through here with the remodel of KMAC, the new building at the Speed and even a place like 21c, is that we’re looking at different ways of activating people,” Milliken said. “In many ways we are more nimble and can determine new strategies and implement them at a much faster pace than a place like the Met.”