Free Admission Opens City Art Collections To All

November 25, 2006|By JACQUES KELLY

The new free admission policy at the Baltimore Museum of Art and at the Walters is one of the happiest arrivals on the cultural scene in a long, long time. I spent hunks of several weekends at both places, catching up with pictures and wonderful stuff I first encountered decades ago. There were so many new visitors, including young art enthusiasts who might not have ponied up under the former pay-at-the-door policy.

For starters, the free admission has blown apart the entry gates bureaucracy. You just walk in. There is no fumbling with credit cards and money. Also, no lines. (I say this after waiting in a long, slow line just to buy an admission ticket to the Whitney Museum in New York.)

What I immediately observed at Baltimore's two free public museums was added racial diversity. I saw black children and their parents having a great time, as good a time as I did 50 years ago -- when, by the way, admission was free. What good are the city's treasures if they aren't out there, open for all to see?

Enthusiasm and liveliness are contagious. Just yesterday morning, I dropped by the Walters and eavesdropped as a guard whispered to a colleague, "We've been crowded since we opened."

These galleries were filled with chattering visitors, many parents with their wide-eyed children, discovering the joys of fabulous paintings and things never seen in a shopping mall. The parents were doing a fine, patient job of being parents, and their offspring were doing their part, too. It made for great people theater.

One mom, standing beside a large sculpture panel, said to her son, "It's Assyrian." Without missing a beat, he shot back, "It's Babylonian."

The mummy room at the Walters was bound to be a hit. At the BMA, the Cone Collection was filled, but so was the scholarly and excellent Lucas show.

As children, we were hauled to these art places and had a great time. I'm not so sure this would have happened if these spots had been charging.

In the past 30 years, I've observed some not-so-great trends. As the city's financial support for its museums dropped, I watched as these institutions held far too many members-only parties and private openings. It seemed that attendance was kept up by school tours. I could not help but think that these museums were turning inward, and while they did not intend to do so, they suffered the consequences. Also, the harbor and its attractions were in their ascendancy.

But there was also a very good side to the past 30 years. Both museums added major wings and new exhibit space, and along the way incurred a lot of extra expenses. So maybe the mortgages are now being paid down. Whatever. We now have the chance to enjoy them, thanks to $800,000 from Baltimore City and Baltimore County governments and $1 million from BMA donor Suzanne F. Cohen.

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