Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Book Club Part 1: Free at Last

Welcome to the first installment of the Museum 2.0 virtual book club. While every post at Museum 2.0 solicits (directly or indirectly) your comments and response, this one is special. I hope these book club posts can serve as invitations for lively discussion in the comment section. I’m going to try to write less and spend more of my energy reading and reacting to your thoughts. Elaine Gurian, author of this summer’s book, Civilizing the Museum, will also be popping into the conversation as her time and interest permits. And if you're planning ahead, next week we'll look at chapter 6, Timeliness: A discussion for museums.

Today we’re looking at Free at Last, chapter 13 of Elaine’s book, an essay originally published in 2005 in AAM’s Museum News (issue 84). Elaine doesn’t waste time mincing words about free admission. The essay starts as follows:

I have reluctantly, but unequivocally, come to the conclusion that general admission charges are the single greatest impediment to making our museums fully accessible.
And ends:
The major and undeniable problem with charging is that it is a means test. In the current situation only those who can afford the cost, and think the experience is valuable enough to pay for, can have access to the patrimony that belongs to us all. We cannot continue to discuss inclusion if we continue to charge for general admission.

Most arguments for free admission center around the idea that the cultural artifacts collected by museums should be available for free use by all. (See, for example, this timely article about museum admission in the UK.) Elaine starts there, arguing that “[museums] cannot argue that they are a resource for those impelled to learn something if the learner must first determine if they can afford to learn.” But she acknowledges that removing admissions fees doesn’t mean instant inclusion; transitioning to free admission has been shown to result in higher attendance, but most of the new visitors fit the traditional museum-going profile.

Instead, Elaine goes to a more interesting place, arguing that charging admission fundamentally affects the nature of the museum experience. She argues that charging admission promotes treatment of the museum visit as an occasional, special event rather than “an easily repeatable one.” The cost of the experience means people want to “urgently cover as much ground as possible” instead of dropping in, doing a bit, and coming back again (as they do in libraries). This special event requires visit planning (How much does it cost? When can my family get a reduced entrance? Where are there passes available? How long will I be there? Do I need to bring food?).

Even if a person does approach a museum on a whim, he or she cannot browse through the museum before making an assessment as to its value. As Elaine puts it, “One cannot enter a museum unobtrusively.” Locating the admission desk “at the door” forces visitors to make an immediate decision about whether the experience they are about to receive—and cannot sample—is worth the asking price. Given peoples’ (including museum professionals!) hazy ideas about “value” of a museum visit, this entry experience can be bewildering and off-putting. Not convinced? I remember visiting the excellent Muhammed Ali Center last year in Louisville during the ASTC conference. As a huge Ali fan, there was no question that I would pay whatever they asked to enter. But I saw other museum people who heard the price ($9), scanned the lobby, and walked out. Even for these professionals, who believe in the value of museums and had taken the time to walk over to the place, the value assessment at entry was not convincing enough to overcome the admission barrier. Perhaps if they had, as Elaine considers, moved the admissions desk later in the experience, they might have hooked more paying guests.

But Elaine’s interest goes beyond more guests, beyond making museum resources available to all potential users. She is promoting fundamentally different patterns of museum use, ones that more closely mirror the ways other civic spaces, like libraries, malls, and parks, are used. As long as admission is in place, she contends, museums cannot be treated as amenities to be used for different purposes at different times by different people. They will be treated as attractions with specific purposes, and “will never become the forum, the meeting ground, the crossroads, the town square that we are all fond of talking about.”


From my perspective, there are two basic arguments concerning museum admission:
  1. Museums should be free. Museums provide access to content and experiences that should be available to all regardless of ability to pay.
  2. Museums should charge admission. Museums provide leisure activities and experiences and should be valued/priced commensurate with the “experience” market. When museums are free, visitors are encouraged to undervalue the experience offered. When museums are priced “at market rate,” people judge the experience relative to others and make their decisions accordingly.
There are many museum people who believe in the principles of both #1 and #2, who cheered when MOMA went to $20 but still want to sneak over to the Smithsonian for a free moment. The problem often lies in the question of what to do about visitors who can pay but prefer not to. Do they grumble about admission fees because they undervalue the museum experience? Or because they want to treat museums as a free resource but are being forced to change their patterns of use to adapt to the new system? I doubt there are many people who would consciously consider the latter. And yet, people who value museum experiences enough to buy memberships are opting to buy a new pattern of use—one that makes them a more comfortable part of the museum.

Elaine’s argument shifts this debate by adding a third option to this list:
Museums (should) provide services that are broad and applicable to everyday life, whose value is variable, and to which entrance (though not necessarily all services) should be free.

Note the should. Current museum structure and design rarely supports the kinds of museum experience for which Elaine advocates. Blockbuster exhibitions, omnipresent audio and light effects, and many of the other recent museum innovations that have created more compelling alternatives in the attraction market also make museums less open to flexible, self-directed, browserly visits. As Elaine puts it, “Museums, if they remain oriented toward their paying customers, will not, I contend, organize themselves as the more general resource they can become.”

Consider this: I’m writing this post from a public library right now. Next to me, there’s a guy painting with watercolors. There’s a woman reading a magazine. There are other people using the internet. There are people sleeping. How many of these functions could be served at the average museum? I remember visiting the Indianapolis Children’s Museum, where I was delighted to discover both a museum and a library. But how strange it must be for some kids to realize they can go into the library whenever they want and play around, but they need to have money or a membership card to enter the museum.

So, what’s a museum to do? A lot of this has to do with mission. When I was at the Spy Museum, a for-profit institution, there was no hair-pulling over this. SPY is a museum that operates like an attraction. It charges what the market will bear. The marketing (both formal and word-of-mouth) supports the price value and keeps people coming in the door. Some people are turned off by the high price and choose not to come, but that is considered a marketing problem, not an inclusion problem.

So that’s one option: to embrace and organize as a full member of the attraction market. But that supports the “special occasion” view of the museum, and it won’t get us any closer to creating spaces for discourse and variable use. If you buy into Elaine’s vision of museums as places for all kinds of interactions, what should happen to admission fees? Should we reorganize our institutions to offer both free, flexible spaces and market rate attractions (IMAX, blockbusters, simulators)? Do we need to change the kinds of exhibitions and programs offered to create a more sustainable model? Is it reasonable to think of museums as providing flexible civic services, or do those services belong in other institutions—like libraries—that already support variable patterns of use?

I’ve written far too much. Please, overtake me and discuss.

6 comments, add yours!:

Anonymous said...

Having not yet read Gurian's essay (the book is sadly still in my AAM bag), I cannot comment compleley on her piece, but just offer a few small thoughts. I'll contribute more once I have had my coffee and time to discuss this with colleagues. I have been following the uproar about prices in the UK closely, also because the Indianapolis Art Museum here recently stopped charging admission. And, as mentioned many places, this doesnt bring in a more diverse audience, but rather brings people back more often. In effect, its a free membership.

We charge admission here (the aforementioned Indianapolis Children's museum), and to our dismay, prices tend to keep increasing. It was only about 10 years ago that we started charging admission, before it was a donation basis. What happened? Donations plummeted, but visitation continued to rise. Memberships skyrocketed, and we found ways to accomodate families who were unable to afford new admissions. We currently offer $1 admission to any family on state or federal assistance, medicaid, or free lunch programs. We also have 3 free days annually, and one free night per month. And we provide free memberships to the families in the neighborhood around the museum.

I am not sure where I am on this issue. I have concerns that no admission will devalue the experience, but as a childrens museum, we too often see families who come in, pay their admission, and are here a total of 30 minutes before someone melts down and they have to leave. Its like paying to get into Kings Island and getting sick on the first ride.

I find myself intrigued by the idea of having the admissions desk further into the museum. I think about the Cincinatti Museum Center, which houses 3 museums in an old train station. The central area houses retail, the IMAX, some collections, special exhibits and food. It has the feel of a gathering place. To use a statement that is fast becoming overused, its like a town square.

But, this leaves us with another issue. If we charge for some, but not all, what do we deem worthy of admission, and what is free? Does this run the risk of furthering our dictation of what culture is worhty and what is not?

Again, not making much sense, but hopefully more people will comment. I do better in discussion. ;)

Anonymous said...

As a card-carrying member of NYC's Cultural Institutions Group, I enjoy free access to more than 60 of the City's fine museums.

I visit maybe five or six a year, usually the biggies. However, any friends in town also get unlimited use of my card. Hundreds of dollars have been saved with my "free membership to everywhere."

It's also made the otherwise-$20 MoMA a repeat destination. I can duck in while I'm in Midtown, cool off, say hello to the Kandinskys, run around the 6th floor like an idiot. And then I can leave without feeling guilty that I didn't "get my money's worth."


I'm pro admission-less museums, theoretically. But then I take the CEO view and wonder, how would I pay salaries without the income from admissions? How many people would get cutback? What services would we stop offering? Would the place get dingy?

From where, Simon, would that operating money come from, if not the paying visitor? Corporate sponsorships can be a dilutive or devil's bargain, the NASCARization of treasured spaces. Government support, like Europe? Let's see if the Democrats keep their heads out of their asses first... but even then, support for the arts is not as inculcated in the U.S.of.A.

Lastly: In my town's square, there's a gazebo covered in graffiti. The only time people gather there is for the Memorial Day parade. Fuck the "town square" metaphor. But the farmers' markets I go to -- those are COMMUNITY spaces!

Anonymous said...

Farmer's Markets! I love it!

And yes, unfortunately, I am too far gone in management/administration to have much hope for my soul. Paying salaries and benefits and keeping the lights on are those sticky things that need to worry about.

That said, our ticket prices cover about 40% of the actual operational cost per visitor, at $12 for adults.

Nina Simon said...

Farmer's markets, like malls, are organized around commerce. There are more and more "social retail" places out there--pedestrian downtown malls, bookstores with coffeeshops, boardwalks, etc. Farmer's markets also have the "delayed admission" model: browse then buy.

I often get annoyed when I think about places to wander in a city and realize they are all commercial spaces. Why don't I browse museums? Partially it's about price (although I'm one of those people who loves to pay), but mostly it's about expectation. Most museums make me feel like I have to learn something, the way you have to eat beets. That's not how I feel when I'm browsing in a store.

So that's one issue--that museums right now don't even support the kinds of browsing you can do in retail spaces. Too often they are Nik's graffiti-laden town squares, trotted out once a year for a visit.

But what about Nik's questions about the bottom line? Here are a couple options I've been thinking about:
-the build-a-bear model. Give people opportunities in the museum to build stuff for free, which they can then choose to purchase and take home. Obviously there's an ethical issue here of putting pressure on people to buy rather than just explore.
-the IMAX, special events, and overnights model. Find your revenue winners and find ways to exploit them more. Raise the price. Hold them more frequently. This addresses Sarah's concern about how we prioritize the free and not-free parts of the museum--make the not-free parts clear, make them hot attractions, and charge market rate.
-boutique museums with specialty retail associated. Of course, then you have problems with the store overwhelming the museum, and then, there's an identity crisis.
-the real estate model. Use seed money to buy real estate and rent out most of it, while using a small portion to create the musem (subsidizied by tenants). I know of at least one New Zealand museum that did this effectively--by hiring a real estate person to manage it.

These ideas (and others) require reframing at least a portion of the museum as a money-making machine. SPY does that pretty well--by maintaining a marketing and sales department stocked with people from the hospitality sector, retail from retail, and a special events department with people from the high end restaurant world. Museum people are not necessarily the best suited people to successfully make money. Maybe we need to follow the model of many tech companies--which combine creative folks with business folks--so we can do both well.

On another note, Nik, it sounds like you have a great "key to your city" in your pass. A big question with all this is what happens to membership if everything is free. Is everyone a member? And if so, so you still feel special when you walk in the door?

rz said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
rz said...

I grew up in the Washington, DC area, so I can testify to the fact that having free museums definitely expands the way you use them. As a teenager, my friends and I spent way more time enjoying the National Mall and the Smithsonian Museums (in typical obnoxious teenager style, including swimming in fountains and piggy-back rides amongst dinosaurs) than at the shopping mall. I've always valued the pressure-free social space offered by free museums; there's no sense of stress and panic if I don't see it all at once.

I have no economic solution to how to make that happen, but my joyful memories of opportunity and freedom have me convinced that it's a worthy goal.