The most important thing art museums do is make their collections, exhibitions, programs and scholarship available to the broadest possible public. When it comes to measuring success and mission fulfillment by that last part — accessibility — Los Angeles-area museums are on a roll.
In just the last few weeks and months the Hammer Museum and the forthcoming Broad Art Museum have announced that they’ll be free to visit. (The Hammer will be completely free; the Broad will provide access to its collection galleries for free while charging for special exhibitions.) The J. Paul Getty Museum is already free-ish: Admission to the Getty’s galleries is free while admission to the Getty’s 99.99-percent-unavoidable parking garage is $15/car. The parking fee adds up to less than two percent of the Getty Trust’s annual revenue.
There are also signs that the Los Angeles County Museum of Art might finally be considering addressing its admissions fee problem: LACMA recently announced that it will be studying ‘audience engagement’ as part of an Institute of Museum and Library Sciences-funded Dallas Museum of Art program. It’s possible that LACMA finds that the data generated by the DMA’s much-heralded free admission-plus-‘friends’ program is more valuable to it than the roughly (and measly) three percent of its revenue it currently brings in through it’s high admission charges. (At the moment, admission at LACMA runs as high as $45.)
In a related story — stay tuned for a few more paragraphs — several Los Angeles museums are also at the forefront of how art museums are making their collections available digitally for free: The Getty and LACMA provide copyright-cleared images of relevant artworks in their collections. Yesterday the Getty announced the latest update to its open-use image database: Over 10,000 Getty artworks are now available, with more to come.
Meanwhile, across the country, zero major New York museums are free and none of New York’s largest museums — MoMA, the Whitney, the Guggenheim, the Metropolitan, and the Frick — have made high-resolution JPEGs of copyright-clear artworks available for free. (Lots of Met artworks are available at 240 dpi. That’s nice, but the museum has not officially renounced rights to those images, which makes publishers/etc. skittish about using them.) So why are Los Angeles art museums so far ahead of New York museums when it comes to open public access to art, and what can we learn from what many of them are doing?
Best guess: New York museums lean heavily, very heavily on tourists and the revenue they provide, and Los Angeles museums don’t. As a result, Los Angeles museums prioritize mission fulfillment most while New York museums do all they can to protect their admissions revenue.
How reliant are New York museums on admissions, especially from tourism? Take the Museum of Modern Art. Last year a MoMA spokesperson said that 60 percent of MoMA’s visitors come from overseas, a clear indication of how important tourists are to MoMA and, by extension, to the NYC museum sector. In the last three years MoMA’s admissions fees have made up 11, 11 and 15 percent of its total revenue, more than triple LACMA’s reliance on admissions. The Guggenheim relies on admissions for 23 percent of its revenue, the Frick 16 percent. The Metropolitan, which is free in all-but-‘suggestion,’ derives just under seven percent of its revenue from those suggested admission fees. That’s lower than other big NYC art museums, but it’s still around twice the industry average.
There’s no data or reporting proving that a reliance on admission fees — particularly tourist-related revenue — makes art museums less progressive about open access to art. But this is hard to ignore: In addition to the Getty, the Yale Center for British Art, the Yale University Art Gallery, the Walters Art Museum and the National Gallery of Art all offer free high-resolution digital images of copyright-clear artworks and are free-to-visit. As with their peers in NYC, admissions-focused museums in Chicago, San Francisco and Boston don’t make copyright-clear JPEGs available either. At minimum, there’s an eye-opening correlation between open-access to digital images and free admission.
Oh, wait, I forgot one big New York institution, didn’t I? Late last month the Morgan Library announced that it was taking a big first step toward digital open-access by making JPEGs of 10,000 drawings available for free. It is the first New York museum to adopt that policy. Yes, the Morgan charges for entry. But the Morgan is far, far less reliant on admissions than its NYC neighbors: Last year the Morgan brought in just over four percent of its revenue from admissions. No surprise, right?
Related: The Morgan’s tax returns include a detail most museums fail to break out: How much money the museum makes from photographic rights to art images in its collection. In the most recent year for which returns are available, the Morgan made $125,000 from images of its art, a figure in-line with previous years. That’s four-tenths of one percent of its revenue. Eliminating fees on copyright-clear images seems like a very, very small price to pay for mission fulfillment.