Opening door for all to see wonders of art

October 01, 2006|By Gary Vikan and Doreen Bolger

Today, the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Walters Art Museum will drop general admission fees. For the first time in more than two decades, Baltimore's two major art museums will offer year-round access to their world-renowned collections free of charge.

The Baltimore Museum of Art will celebrate this unprecedented initiative with its BMA Art- Blast, launching at 11 this morning, and the Walters will have its Wide Open Weekend festival beginning Friday evening. We will be part of Free Fall Baltimore, 180 free art and culture events offered citywide over the next two months through the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts.

Our decision to "go free" was announced in May, just before news broke that the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City was raising its recommended admission fee to $20, matching the admission price at New York's other leading art destination, the Museum of Modern Art.

A lively debate ensued over the benefits of free access vs. paid admission. Some likened art museums to movies and rock concerts, where fees are both appropriate and necessary. Others even suggested that art museum visitors are the elite and that their enjoyment of art should not be subsidized by public funds. In fact, escalating admission fees would eventually ensure that art museums did become places only the affluent could afford.

This debate will continue, and on this momentous day for our museums, we want to put forth the beliefs and values that guided our trustees in making their decisions:

The BMA and the Walters were founded as public institutions with strong civic purposes, and their missions center on serving audiences. The mandate of our founders was that we act for the public good, and we believe that free access gives powerful expression to that mandate.

We believe that art museums should be places for community building, where people of all backgrounds can engage with the creative genius of the past - and present - for enjoyment, discovery and learning. Any barrier to access to this experience is a barrier to a community achieving its potential.

Movies and rock concerts are commercial events, where the rules of the marketplace prevail. Museums are fundamentally different: Our collections are held in the public trust and solely for the public good. For us, the question of fees is framed not by what the market can bear but rather by what the institution can bear. While every museum must contend with its own unique mix of financial challenges, our goal should be to push access fees down, not up.

The BMA and the Walters are committed to inclusiveness. When our museums have had free access hours - first Thursdays for the BMA and Saturday mornings for the Walters - we have seen many more visitors and much greater diversity. The statistics recently compiled by the BMA are especially compelling: Attendance by diverse visitors more than doubles during free hours.

No art museum can cover more than a small fraction of the costs of preserving and presenting art with admission fees. For most art museums, public funds are essential - and for good reason, given the role that museums play as places for convening our increasingly diverse and fragmented communities.

We are able to launch free admission now thanks to visionary government leaders in the city and Baltimore County. They recognize the impact that free access to great art will have both on the quality of life for Marylanders and on the region's competitiveness in attracting cultural tourists. Their generosity has already inspired gifts from Anne Arundel County and the T. Rowe Price Associates Foundation. We expect others, both public and private, to follow their lead.

Baltimore is a city blessed more than most by a legacy of great philanthropists. The collections of the BMA and the Walters are enduring expressions of that generosity of spirit. Those who support making this great art accessible to all, free of charge, give this amazing legacy new life.

And every museum member and donor, every civic leader and citizen who advocates for free access, every visitor to the BMA and the Walters, contributes toward the endurance and relevance of this legacy.

Gary Vikan is director of the Walters Art Museum. His e-mail is gvikan@thewalters.org. Doreen Bolger is director of the Baltimore Museum of Art. Her e-mail is dbolger@artbma.org.

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