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Museums ponder collection of admission fees

Lisa Napoli Jul 7, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: I used to live in Washington, D.C. And that city gets a bad rap sometimes. But you can’t fault the town for its cultural attractions. There’s a symphony. And the Kennedy Center. And free museums. Doesn’t cost a dime to go to the National Portrait Gallery that just reopened. Or any of the Smithsonian’s other museums. There has been some talk lately about changing that. Charging admission for the first time, after 160 years. But some other museums are going the other way. Marketplace’s Lisa Napoli explains.

LISA NAPOLI: Just after 5 o’clock on a Friday evening, the darkened galleries of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art are jammed. The line snakes from the front entrance, down a long hall, past a video display, to the art all these people are waiting to see: Five glimmering paintings by Gustav Klimt — most notably, the one that just fetched 135 million bucks at auction.

Many of the people waiting in line to get a glimpse didn’t have to pay. The museum stops charging every night after five:

MUSEUM VISITOR 1: We just happened to get here at 4:30 . . .

MUSEUM VISITOR 2: . . . to see the Klimt paintings . . .

MUSEUM VISITOR 1: . . . and as we were ready to pay we realized that if we waited a half an hour, we could get in for free.

They saved 18 bucks.

President Melody Kanschat says the cost to LACMA is minimal:

MELODY KANSCHAT: General admissions makes up a small part of our revenue stream. We probably make, on average, $2.5 million or $3 million a year in general admissions. On a $40 million budget it just doesn’t do much more than help pay the light bill and pay for a few of the operational costs of the institution.

In some museums, the gift shop takes in more money than the gate. Which is why museums big and small are experimenting with free hours and days. And some are getting rid of admission charges altogether.

The Baltimore Museum is the latest to announce it’ll go all free, all the time. Doreen Bolger is its director:

DOREEN BOLGER: By dropping the admission fee, we’ll get a much larger number of people to come, a more diverse audience, a broader audience, more action in our shop and in our restaurant. And we believe it’ll encourage people to think philanthropically about the museum in a different way as well.

Foundations, corporations and private donors are the major sources of income for museums. Bolger says they’re more inclined to give if they know the museum’s reaching a wider audience.

Doug McLennan of ArtsJournal.com says freebies come with a “quantity versus quality” downside:

DOUG MCLENNAN: It has increasingly meant that museums define themselves by how many visitors they got through the door.

Rather than by the quality of the art.
McLennan says British museums are jam-packed but suffering after going all-free five years ago:

MCLENNAN: Here we are a few years later and there’s a big crisis in being able to buy anything for museums. Their collections budgets have completely disappeared.

So what’s a museum to do?

Ed Able of the American Association of Museums points out that not all museums, or their finances, are created equal.

ED ABLE: Talking about averages for museums is a very dangerous thing because it’s an enormously diverse field. And particularly the funding base at any museum, any individual museum, is sort of keyed to the assets in that particular community where it exists.

That’s why the Museum of Modern Art in New York can charge $20 a ticket and have lines around the block. While the USS Constitution Museum in Boston couldn’t get people to pay four bucks a ticket. It’s had mobs of visitors since dropping the fee.

But foot traffic isn’t everything. The San Jose Museum of Art found when visitors got in for nothing, they were less inclined to open their pocketbooks in the gift shop and restaurant. So starting next month, you’ll have to cough up to get in again as a ticket charge is reinstated.

In Los Angeles, I’m Lisa Napoli for Marketplace.

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