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Opening museum doors for free pays off

Adriene Hill Oct 2, 2015

Opening museum doors for free pays off

Adriene Hill Oct 2, 2015

Joanne Heyler is the founding director of the Broad museum in downtown Los Angeles, which houses the contemporary art collection of billionaire real estate developer, Eli Broad. 

Opening a new museum means Heyler has a lot of  things to worry about. But fundraising isn’t one of them.

“Amongst colleagues, I have a wry comment I often I make that ‘we don’t have a development department, the development department is me,'” Heyler said. “And I have one prospect.'”

That prospect, of course, is the Broad family, which funds the endowment, that funds the museum, and makes attendance free.

“We felt it was important to remove as many barriers as we could,” Heyler said. 

The new home of the Broad museum dubbed “the veil and the vault.” (Adriene Hill/Marketplace)

Lots of museums would like to remove those “admission” barriers, or entrance fees, which account for less than 10 percent of museum revenues, on average.

And, in fact, about a third of museums in the U.S. are free. 

The Dallas Museum of Art, for instance, stopped charging general admission in 2013.

Robert Stein, the museum’s deputy director, said the throwing open the doors for free paid off.

“While it was a small down tick in revenues, the upside on fulfilling our mission and changing the way we can reach our audience was worth the sacrifice,” he said.

Attendance at the museum is up 50 percent, he said. 

A crowd waits in line outside the Broad museum in downtown L.A. Admission is free. (Adriene Hill/Marketplace) 

So why aren’t more museums free?

Elizabeth Merritt, director of the Center for the Future of Museums at the American Alliance of Museums, said not every museum can make up that lost revenue with grants, gifts, sponsorships and other sources of income.

“I think what often gets lost in the idea that we would like museums to be free, is that somebody has to pay for it,” she said. 

She said there are instances of museums bringing in enough money from donors or foundations to stop charging admission. But then the funds dry up and the fees have to come back.

Never a popular move.


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