Eli Broad has announced that his new Grand Avenue museum will have free general admission. Free admission is one point on which the 1 percent and the 99 percent agree. As far as I can tell, museum directors are all in favor of it, too. So why are free art museums still a rarity on the West and East Coasts?
• Here’s what museum directors hope. Free admission will boost attendance, especially among younger and nonwhite demographics. The socially aware crowd that sits on museum boards will take note and boost their contributions, making up for the loss of admission revenue.
• Here’s what museum directors fear: Attendance and diversity won’t increase that much or that fast. It might be that the effect of free admission takes decades rather than years to kick in. What if museum supporters don’t care as much about attendance or diversity metrics as they say?
• Conclusion: Eliminating admission charges is a risk. It would certainly be awkward to have to reinstitute admission charges if the “experiment” didn’t work out. The smart careerist will speak hopefully of eliminating admission fees some day but wait for a lot of other museums to move first.
It’s mostly been museums in the middle part of the nation that have been offering free admission. The Dallas Museum of Art recently received a $450,000 grant to study how its free membership program might be applied to three other museums, including LACMA.
One survey found that audiences were willing to pay twice as much for aquariums as for art museums. Below is Thomas Struth’s Aquarium, Atlanta, Georgia, recently added to the Broad collection.