Monday, September 5, 2011

Should Museums Charge Admission Fees?

As an art history student in Washington, D.C., I always thank my lucky stars that the (majority of the) Smithsonian Museums do not charge admission. I came to appreciate this even more this past summer while studying in Paris. While museum admission prices for students were often reduced, all visitors were required to pay entrance fees. Because I visited many of Paris's museums with my art history class, I was exempt from purchasing my own tickets, but what about the millions of tourists who wander through the Louvre and the D'Orsay per year? I guess what I'm getting at is the following: is it ethical for museums to charge their visitors admission fees? And should some visitors be exempt from paying this fee?

Is it ethical for an institution to make money from someone else's work?

By exhibiting the works of artists - whether deceased or living - is it ethical for museums to make a profit? Museums generally acquire works for exhibition by purchasing them, by borrowing them, or by donation. So if museums have acquired pieces from an artist's body of work by purchase, loan, or donation, they technically are the property of the museum. Since the museum owns the pieces, why shouldn't it make a profit from their exhibition? On the contrary, should we have moral reservations about paying money to a museum who is profiting from someone else's work?

If museums are intended to educate and entertain the larger populus, is charging an admission fee incongruent with the social mission of museums?

I suppose this question is based firstly on the opinion/assumption that museums have social missions. If we accept that this is true, at least for the intents and purposes of this blog post, then we can proceed with the question at hand. If a museum has in its mission statement the objective to reach people from all social classes and economic backgrounds, it should take into consideration the ability of its visitors to pay admission fees. For example, a low-income visitor may have several reservations about spending an afternoon in an art museum. First of all because of the all-too-pervasive conception of museums as "mausoleums" - where a visitor dressed improperly or without adequate social standing is not welcome. Secondly, a visitor who may not have the means to spend $20 on a museum ticket has a disadvantage over a more affluent visitor. In short: if a museum charges an admission fee, is it perpetuating the cycle of social disparity and failing to fulfill its social mission?

If museums do not charge admission, where else is the funding for their maintenance and programs going to come from?

Museums tend to draw funding from a variety of places: admission fees, donors, museum memberships, government subsidies, and endowments. Some smaller museums who may not receive as much government funding or who may not have a substantial endowment rely on visitors' admissions fees to fund museum programs and activities. Without the contribution of these fees, some such museums would be in financial turmoil or would possibly even shut down. Is it the government's place to step in and financially support (with taxpayers' dollars, of course) these museums? I don't know. Whose responsibility is it, then, to provide funding for museums?

As I am milling over all of these ideas in my mind, I can't help thinking of the Met's system of admission on a donation basis as a possible solution. Visitors to the Met are encouraged to pay a "suggested donation" fee, which is essentially a pay-as-much-as-you-can admission fee. There are pros and cons to this concept too. Some visitors might choose to pay nothing (which brings us back to the above question of who will financially support museums). Other visitors might be embarrassed to give anything less than the suggested donation, and so may be deterred from visiting the museum (which brings us back to my ponderings about museums' social missions). So I suppose, in actually hashing out the pros and cons, the Met's donation system isn't perfect either.

If donations are not the way to go, and museums will die without funding, where should we stand on the issue of charging admission?


  1. I believe you need a quick primer on the definition of "non-profit," for the "gate" (as museum professionals call the $$ coming from entry fees) does not profit the museum. That $$ goes to the museum's bottom line, so to speak, to keep the doors open, the lights on...and curators paid! Museums that make a profit follow a corporate model. This is a really interesting article in Museum Magazine that might clarify the issue for you:

    I do agree with you though that there is a price point at which the average visitor has to think twice about visiting. Museums have a number of different strategies. In DC, where so many institutions have public funding, they are required to be free (the NGA). The Smithsonian is now considering an admissions fee. Often, the price of purchasing a family membership for a year becomes favorable over purchasing individual tickets. In so doing, the museum can capture a new member (or family), which means creating a long-term relationship. On the flip side, would more people consider attending museums if the admissions fee were eliminated? It would be an interesting experiment to conduct, but museums have become accustomed to making money at the door--and there's so little out there that every bit counts.

  2. Thank you for clearing that up for me! I realize that I was a bit hasty in failing to distinguish between for-profit museums (i.e. Washington D.C.'s Spy Museum) and non-profit museums. I found Leah Arroyo's article to be enlightening and informative - the debate between for-profit and non-profit museums may be something I write about in the future!