By Richard Carreño
Want to see Picasso’s works at the Philadelphia Museum of Art? Or, say, works by Benjamin West and Thomas Eakins at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts? Or, simply the grandest collection of French Impressionists anywhere when the Barnes Foundation opens next year on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
Even as the economy remains in the tank, Philadelphia’s great museums are squeezing their visitors with ever-growing admission fees. Sticker shock isn’t just for the car lot anymore.
Not surprisingly, Philly’s seniors, many on fixed incomes, are the hardest hit as local museums seek to dig out their respective financial dilemmas (endowments are just growing back to pre-crash values) by socking it big time to one-off visitors.
But are price-gouging fees really helping the museums to turn around? Hardly. Actually, admission revenue only represents for most museums about two to four percent of their total annual income.
Though they are loath to admit it, many museum administrators see high gate fees — as high as $16 for a one-time visit to the PMA, plus another $25 to include a major show — as a way to create a wider membership base. If more and more museum-goers are frightened away by outrageous single admissions and ticket fees to blockbuster shows, the logic goes, more of them will be seduced into becoming annual members at seemingly more modest and economic rates. Blockbuster included.
In theory, this Machiavellian maneuvering makes sense. More members increases a wider base for fundraising and increased shopping in over-priced museum stores. Membership also increases an institution’s bragging rights to ‘loyalty’ when it seeks public, corporate, and foundation support, and most important of all, when it turns to the real treasury that keeps a museum afloat, private donations by the rich and famous or, simply, the rich and rich.
As for John Q. Public — especially John Q. Public senior citizen — less is said. With museum memberships between the $75 to $100 figure annually, again many seniors here have to take another hit as they seek out the city’s patrimony. Or, of course, seniors can avail themselves of discounted pricing, from $16 to $14 (older than 65). Blockbuster not included.
Oddly, this pricing policy runs counter to that at many art institutions from coast to coast — and in Europe — that are increasingly understanding that quick hits at the turnstile don’t add up to long-range profit, nor, as important, good will. In England, national museums are free. In France, deep discounts are offered to seniors. The same in Israel.
The PMA, when hiking its general admission fee last year from $14 to $16, also, in a particularly Scrooge-like move, reduced its pay-what-wish Sundays, from every Sunday to once a month. PAFA dropped its free Sundays entirely.
Thankfully, three major Philadelphia museums have adhered to free admissions, the Woodmere Museum in Chestnut Hill, the LaSalle University Art Museum, and the University of Pennsylvania Museum. (The Penn Museum recommends a suggested donation. In other words, pay what you want).
These Philly museums, and others around the world, understand that free-will offerings improve the bottom line in non-intuitive ways. More people means more spending in museums stores. At the PMA, more people also means more people parking in its lucratively income-producing parking garage. And lastly, of course, free admissions bring great art to all the people — despite their incomes.
The PMA, one of the world’s great museums, has yet another reason to adopt a free-will offering as its business model — a legal one. This, especially, since the PMA is often scolded as a habitat for the bourgeoisie, for the haves and the have mores.
The legal issue? We — the citizens of Philadelphia — own the building that houses the PMA.
A similar founding charter governs the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Thus, the reason that the Met is free — well, almost. Pay what you wish, but at least a penny.
The PMA hasn’t been held to the Met’s example. This, despite millions being poured in to the museum’s coffers annually by a half dozen taxpayer-funded agencies.
At the PMA, at least, don’t expect any free-will offering anytime soon. True, Timothy Rub, the museum’s director, inaugurated a free admission when he served at the Cleveland Museum of Art. But so far, unless you’re a member, that will be $16 per visit. Oh yeah, $14 if you’re a senior.