Wednesday 28 November 2012

Arms wide open

I spent a chunk of last week with the awesomely talented and very personable Nate Solas, of the Walker Art Center.* Hanging out with Americans is always interesting, for many reasons, including talking about the difference in the funding models for our cultural institutions.

I thought of that this morning when I woke up an looked at Twitter and saw Maxwell L. Anderson, director of the Dallas Art Museum, dropping a tantalising hint:
I made some coffee, and by the time I was back at my laptop the announcement was out. The Dallas Art Museum is not only dropping its admission fee from 21 January next year, but also making membership free.

From the Dallas News:
“Nobody has ever done this,” Anderson said last week in an exclusive interview with The Dallas Morning News. “We’re going to build a model for museum engagement that we believe every other museum like us will want to have.”
Some special temporary exhibitions will continue to have charged entry; people with free memberships will be able to collect 'points' through their visiting activity (terrible phrase, all my own fault, but covers in this rushed early morning post things like repeat visits, going to specific galleries, catching public transport to visit the museum, through to Facebook friending) to earn discounts.

Entry charges have been on Anderson's mind for a while:
Museum admission fees have been an issue with Anderson since he wrote a landmark thesis during a fellowship at Princeton University that questioned the use of museum attendance as the primary definition of museum success. Admission fees represent about 2 percent of a museum’s revenue and are not, in his words, the driver of the economic engine.  
If, for instance, “you take the top 130 art museums in America and add up their operating expenses, it was $2.1 billion in 2010. If you then add up their ticket revenue, it’s around $116 million. So, that’s under 4 percent nationally. But if you exclude New York, you’re closer to 2 percent nationally.”
This post about the announcement by Tyler Green tracks changes and trends in admission charges in museums across America.
The DMA is continuing an industry trend of making general admission free. In recent years museums such as the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Walters Art Museum and the Detroit Institute of Arts (for local residents) have all decided that they can better fulfill their missions by eliminating barriers to access and entry.  
The trend toward greater public access to art has yet to extend to museums in major tourist cities: MoMA soaks visitors — 60 percent of whom come from overseas — for $25. The Met asks for $25 (here’s why that’s a bad idea) and the Guggenheim charges $22. In San Francisco, America’s other big city for art tourism, SFMOMA charges $18. None of them offer free admission or discounts to their home audiences.
Of course, we're not really talking about the financial benefits of membership here. We're talking about the concept of being a member: of belonging. Of making this the default setting for every person who enters the building (or engages with the museum in some way). As Anderson says:
“When somebody from South Dallas walks up to the front desk, and the person behind the counter says, ‘Welcome to the DMA – are you members?’ What are they hearing? It’s like walking into a country club. It freaks you out. It’s exclusionary. I want everybody to feel they belong here, so I want everybody to be a member.”
*Nate is the Senior New Media Developer at the Walker - check out the team's blog here. The Walker's redeveloped site, with its open attitude and data-crunchy underpinnings, was the hit of the museum world this year. Nate was in New Zealand as a keynote speaker at the National Digital Forum conference. Video of the presentations will be available soon; in the meantime, we're using a Google Doc to collect as many sets of presenter notes, slides, and demos/projects as we can.

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