Priceless art

May 31, 2006

Gary Vikan, the director of the Walters Art Museum, is dusting off a relic of years past - and for the best of reasons. It's a bronze plaque that hung outside the museum until 1982, and it reads: ADMISSION FREE. Beginning Oct. 1, both the Walters and the Baltimore Museum of Art will drop their $10 entrance fee, allowing anyone and everyone to explore the city's art treasures at no charge. It's a gesture beyond generous. It's an opportunity to enhance the cultural awareness of individual and community alike. It puts a priority on cultural literacy for all - not just those who can afford it. It's the right incentive to transform the occasional visitor into a committed patron.

The joint decision, to be announced today, was made possible through $800,000 in additional funding from the city of Baltimore and Baltimore County and a smaller contribution from Anne Arundel County. It addresses directly the fundamental purpose of a municipal museum - to make art available to the public. Both institutions were founded for that reason - Henry Walters gave his collection to the city "for the benefit of the public," and civic leaders established the BMA in 1914 to "bring the fine arts into the lives of the citizens." But in 1982, at the urging of city officials, the museums began charging a $2 fee to offset increasing operating expenses.

Today, admissions fees represent only about 2 percent of the BMA's revenues. But when the museum is free, attendance increases and visitors are more diverse. That also has been the experience of museums in Minneapolis; Dayton, Ohio; and Cincinnati after they dropped admission fees.

The BMA saw about 243,485 visitors in the year that ended last July; the Walters had about 133,484. Each expects to see some of its paid members drop off, but that would be a shame. This initiative isn't so much about offering art at no charge as ensuring that there are future audiences to experience and appreciate a Byzantine icon, a Rembrandt or an Andy Warhol soup can.

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