Putting the Squeeze on Fees in Chicago

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Yesterday I mentioned that in May, when the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art opens its new rooftop sculpture garden, it will also increase its admission fee by 20%, from $12.50 to $15. I think I’m seeing a trend here. Pending approval by the city, the Philadelphia Museum of Art also plans to increase admission fees, which range right now from $10 to $14. And last week the Art Institute of Chicago announced an even steeper hike, 50%, from $12 to $18, that will go into effect on May 23, not long after the opening of its new American wing. And in that connection, today the Chicago Tribune is reporting that the fee hike has set off a local alderman, who’s proposing an ordinance to block free city services like water to museums that charge more than $10.

Though American museums get various tax breaks and operating subsidies, public money covers just a small fraction of operating costs at most of them. (The notable exceptions are the National Gallery in Washington and the various branches of the Smithsonian, all of which are notably free.) Endowment revenue is the main way that most museums cover operating costs, and of course everybody’s endowment has taken a sizable whack over the past year. Corporate and individual philanthropy is also down and in a lot of cities so are subsidies from the city budget. All the same, places like the Nelson-Atkins in Kansas City, the Baltimore Museum, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and the Indianapolis Museum still manage to remain free to the public. (Except for separately ticketed special exhibitions.)

But even if museums conclude they have to charge, any time they boost entry fees to something well above the cost of a movie ticket, it shuts out casual visitors, especially during a recession like this one. (Out of towners — meaning tourists — appear not to balk at paying whatever it takes, even at museums like the Met in New York where the admission fee is merely “suggested”.)

The Art Institute somehow managed to be free until 1971, when it adopted a suggested fee, which became compulsory only in 2006.  Like a lot of museums it has a free day. It’s also free on Thursday evenings and Friday evening in summer, and for the entire month of February. (If you’ve ever been to Chicago in freezing February you know they need to do whatever they can to attract people in winter.) But I agree with what the blogger Tyler Green said last week, that when museums raise admission prices they put downward pressure on attendance by anybody but those eternally-willing tourists.

Alan G. Artner, the Chicago Tribune‘s critic, added some interesting perspective over the weekend. He suggests that the Institute might not have needed to go looking for quite so much money if it hadn’t moved away from “blockbuster” shows — many of them devoted to the inevitable Impressionists — that brought in significant revenue. When the Institute’s director James Cuno came to the job in 2004 from the Courtauld Institute in London, he was already well known for his distaste for big crowd pleasing loan shows, especially the ones focused on the same array of 19th century names.

I get a little tired of Monet sometimes myself, but over the years I’ve come to think of the blockbusters as benign developments. They bring people to museums who might not otherwise look in, and they introduce new generations to a cast of players who may be relatively new to them, no matter how familiar they are to me. And if they also make it easier for museums to make ends meet, then there are worse things than one more 10-gallery homage to Renoir.