Museums enjoy their free for all

With no fee, BMA, Walters see big increase in visitors

September 30, 2007|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,Sun reporter

The gamble of free admissions at Baltimore's two largest art museums seems to be paying off.

Admissions are soaring, and both the Baltimore Museum of Art and The Walters Art Museum report that they are attracting a more diverse crowd than ever before.

Museum memberships have decreased, as was expected, but total donations are up. Make no mistake - challenges lie ahead. But the museum's administrators are triumphantly declaring their bold free-for-all experiment a success.

"I come to the museum nearly every weekend and walk through the galleries," says Doreen Bolger, the Baltimore Museum of Art's director. "There's a tangible difference, not just in our total numbers, but in the variety of our visitors, and in the way that people are relaxing on the benches and interacting with our artwork."

Baltimore's experiment reflects a continuing debate among American art museums. Most still charge admission fees. Some, such as the Indianapolis Museum of Art, joined other free museums this year. Others, such as the Philadelphia Museum of Art, not only are keeping fees but are increasing them.

Aided by an $800,000 grant from Baltimore City and county officials, the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Walters officially dropped their $10 admission charge last October. That move generated widespread community goodwill and inspired a spin-off program in which performing groups throughout the city also offered a series of no-charge, ticketless performances. That program, called Freefall Baltimore, also begins its second year tomorrow.

In the past year, total attendance at the Walters has increased a whopping 55 percent, to about 193,000 visitors. The BMA is recording a more measured, but still impressive, 15 percent jump, to an estimated 233,400 guests for the 11-month period ending Aug. 31.

"There was a pent-up desire for the BMA, and free membership has unleashed it," Bolger says.

Both museums estimate that new visitors make up about a third of their total audience. In addition, the proportion of African-Americans patronizing the Walters has doubled from 10 percent of all guests when an admission fee was charged, to 20 percent now.

"It's exhilarating," says Gary Vikan, the Walters' director.

"I can't tell you what a positive impact this has had on the staff. Our mission is to bring art and people together, and that's exactly what we're doing," he says. "It's a very enriching way of being a museum professional."

The Baltimore Museum of Art hasn't recorded the race of its visitors, but Bolger said that anecdotally, the staff is convinced that the diversity of the audience has increased substantially.

But, to paraphrase an old bromide, there's no such thing as a free art museum.

One of the hidden costs of going free is that paid memberships drop. The BMA has lost about 10 percent of its members, while the Walters says that membership has declined 25 percent.

Both Bolger and Vikan say the bulk of the decrease comes from those who buy an annual membership but don't donate additional funds. For this group, joining the museum was an economic decision (an annual membership costs less than buying several separate admissions) rather than an altruistic one.

In fact, the BMA raised more than $1 million this year from large donors who gave at least $1,000 to the museum - a record amount in this category, and $1.93 million in annual support, a slight increase over last year's pledges of $1.86 million.

"Our decision to go free has generated incredible financial support for this museum," Bolger says.

To defray some of the costs of going free and to bolster membership, both museums are mounting special, ticketed exhibitions. For instance, at the end of October, the BMA will open the first major U.S. exhibition of Matisse's sculpture in more than 40 years. Museum members won't be charged for admittance, but nonmembers will pay $15.

The BMA has also scheduled ticketed exhibits for future years: Picasso and the Circus Family in 2009, and Cezanne and American Modernism for 2010.

Next week, the Walters opens D?j? Vu, which addresses the question of repetition in French masterpieces, and Maps: Finding Our Place in the World, which is being billed as the most ambitious American exhibition of its kind in the past 50 years. This is the first time, Vikan says, that the Walters has mounted two special exhibitions in the same year.

But going free isn't an option for every museum.

"Baltimore has set the standard for going free, but it's a unique standard," says Mimi Gaudieri, executive director of the Association of Art Museum Directors. "Every city is different - the makeup of the community, the makeup of visitors, the size, the tax structure. There's no one rule for how they operate."

Roughly two-thirds of museums nationwide currently charge for admission, and there doesn't appear to be an impetus for going in one direction or the other.

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