At a time when the nation's top museums are ratcheting up their prices, Baltimore is marching in the opposite direction.
Reports of escalating admission fees at public art galleries recently have made headlines across the United States. In June, the Chicago Art Institute changed its fee from a "recommended" $12 to a required $12. The next month, the entrance fee for New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art jumped from $15 to $20. And in August, California's San Jose Art Museum rescinded its free admission policy and began collecting $8 from each visitor.
Even at the Smithsonian Institution, which is entirely supported by taxpayers, a proposal to charge admission was floated as recently as last spring.
But not Baltimore. Starting tomorrow, its two largest museums - the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Walters Art Museum - will toss out their $10 admission fees, with the help of an $800,000 grant from city and county officials. Museum administrators say the new policy is aimed at raising admissions and increasing the number of minority visitors.
In addition, the announcement by the Walters and BMA generated so much good will that local officials put together two months of free shows and arts activities around the city and called it Free Fall Baltimore, according to Bill Gilmore, director of the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts.
The 75 participating arts groups will present 180 events, including a performance of Opus at Everyman Theatre and a puppet-making workshop and performance by the Black Cherry Puppet Theatre at the Baltimore Public Works Museum. There also will be a show by the modern dance troupe Alvin Ailey II and a family-friendly jazz concert.
The initiative launches tomorrow and runs through Nov. 30.
"We think we're the first city to try something this extensive," said Randi Vega, BOPA's cultural affairs director. "Other cities have similar programs for a few days or for a weekend, but we couldn't find anything else that goes on for two months or that involves so many groups."
While the events are geared primarily toward city residents, Free Fall also is being marketed to communities within 100 miles of Baltimore. Five hotels have put together discount packages for Free Fall visitors.
"If this is as successful as we anticipate, there's a real possibility this could become an annual event," Gilmore said. "But, the arts groups will need to prove that this has helped them bring in a new audience. We'll also need to demonstrate that we increased revenues in areas such as parking."
Free Fall Baltimore is being paid for with $750,000 in surplus city budget funds. The money was given to the Office of Promotion and the Arts by Mayor Martin O'Malley under the condition that it help arts groups become more accessible and find new audience members.
A delicate balance
Performing groups and galleries have long wrestled with the problem of how to reach people from all walks of life while remaining financially viable.
"If they could afford it, every museum would be totally free," said Jason Hall, director of government and media relations for the American Association of Museums.
According to 2002 statistics provided by the association, roughly a third of its 20,000 member museums do not charge an admission fee. And small museums are far more likely to be free than large ones: While 56 percent of museums with annual budgets of $180,000 or less don't charge to view their collections, just 20 percent of those museums with budgets exceeding $2.5 million are free. (The Walters has an operating budget of $11.8 million, while the BMA's operating budget is $11.2 million.)
A decision to go free has significant advantages - but also carries real risks.
With one bold swoop, museums seemingly can achieve all their demographic goals overnight. According to several studies, waiving admission fees is likely to vastly increase a group's audience. Low-income people are more prone to visit. And going free brings in children and teens, who will form the audience of tomorrow.
What others are doing
While there has been no national study on the impact of free admissions, there is ample anecdotal evidence of the benefits such a policy can yield:
In Baltimore, one of every four visitors to the Walters goes through its doors between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. on Saturdays, the three hours of the week when admission was free. And at the BMA, minority attendance leaps from 7 percent to 18 percent on the first Thursday of each month, when entrance fees were waived.
The San Jose Art Museum dropped its entrance fee in 2001. A year later, attendance had doubled, to just under 200,000. In addition, minority visitors increased from 26 percent to 45 percent, and the proportion of museumgoers ages 18 to 24 rose from 8 percent to 26 percent.