What price admission to the Barnes?

Derek Gillman's temptation, or:
What price admission to the Barnes?

RICHARD CARREÑO

    Given the Barnes Foundation's current annual deficit of $4.5 million, and a daunting fund-raising mission of $50 million to kick-start the museum's reincarnation in Center City, the Barnes's new executive director, Derek Gillman, will surely be tempted by the quick fix. That is? Boost immediate cash flow by raising the admission price to the Barnes's priceless collection.

    Derek, please don't— for your own institution's sake, if not for your visitors'.

    Yes, I know. Hiking admission fees— sometimes almost to the tune of a Broadway show or a family day at Disney World—  seems the trend in the museum world. Two of America's leading museums have done exactly that.

    When the Museum of Modern Art in New York reopened in 2004 after a much-vaunted face-lift, museum-goers got one surprise after another. Picasso's Guernica was no longer there (repatriated, quite rightly, to Spain). And, much more problematically, a new admission price: a charge of $20 per adult ticket (up from $12) that made MOMA's admission fee the most expensive of any art museum in the country.

    MOMA's price-gouging of the average musuem-goer (unlike the Rockefellers, who endowed the place) proved infectious. Just last month, the Metropolitan Museum of Art jacked up its admission fee, from $15, to the now-familiar (thanks to MOMA) $20 fee.

    But with a difference. MOMA's fee is compulsory. The Met's is “suggested.” In other words, at the Met, you can walk in, act a bit sheepish, and pay little or nothing— and you still get an admission button. (I know. I've done it).

    Is raising prices, then, the coming thing— as in, coming to a museum near youlike the Barnes?

He held the line at the Academy

    On this money question, Derek Gillman's track record suggests that he may well resist taking the quick fix.

    At the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, over which Gillman presided as president and chief executive officer before his appointment at the Barnes this week, he held general admission to $7.This, even in the midst of the massive, multi-million-dollar acquisition and renovation of the Academy’s new Hamilton Building. This seamless expansion, a display of Gillman's fund-raising acumen, no doubt played a significant role in his selection at the Barnes.

    The bad news? Gillman eliminated free admissions on Sunday mornings. 

    As Gillman shepherds the museum's move to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, let's hope that he’ll resist the temptation to raise  the Barnes's $10 current admission fee— not for altruistic populist reasons, but for one hard-headed reason: Admission increases are not always good for business.

Why attendance matters

    When it comes to museum financing, the show isn't underwritten by the fans in the bleachers. The “gate” is one of the least important aspects in institutional financing— especially when, as at the Barnes, such billion-dollar foundations as Pew, Annenberg, and Lenfest are underwriting the major expenses. Gillman knows this as well as any other heavy hitter in the fund-raising business.

    But the “gate” matters hugely when I comes to imploring the rich to part with their wealth. Donors want to know that their donations will be valued by many— and that many will also see and appreciate their names as donors.

    The Barnes, at its current location in Lower Merion, attracts only about 60,000 visitors per year. But the optimistic Barnes trustees contend that, once the collection is moved to Center City, admissions will soar to 200,000. That’s a stiff order at any admission price, and nearly impossible if Gillman and the trustees try to compensate for their short-term needs by raising the admission price.

    Even the grande dame of Philadelphia's cultural institutions, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, has experienced lagging overall attendance in recent years, despite a continuing series of bloc-buster exhibits. This, too, even though the Art Museum charges only $12 per person, and sponsors a “Pay what you wish” day on Sundays.

If Baltimore can do it....

    Is there a better future financing model than the MOMA or the Met? Yes indeed.  Creative financing schemes, for example, have allowed the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to offer free admission after 5 p.m. At the J. Paul Getty Museum in LA, a beneficiary of the Getty family's millions, admission is always free.

    The Smithsonian Institution museums, like other national museums in Washington as well as virtually all museums in London, are also free, thanks to government funding. In Louisiana, as I learned during a recent visit, museum admissions are free if you're a state resident.

    More astonishing is the recent example of two Baltimore museums, the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Walters Art Museum (a gem on the order of Philly's Pennsylvania Academy) that declared an always-free admissions policy, come one, come all, starting in October. Both museums are returning to their roots, as both offered free admissions when they were founded in the early 20th century.

    These institutions seem to have grasped a subtle but essential point in the museum survival game: Donors follow crowds. If you attract large crowds, the donors will come. Conversely,  if you shrink your audience by raising the admission price, donors will gravitate elsewhere.

    Let's hope that the Barnes learns this lesson as it takes up digs on the Parkway, just a stone's throw from the Philadelphia, ahem, Free Library. Did I hear free?  A Barnes Free Foundation, perhaps. That, Derek, has a nice ring to it.


Richard Carreño is a partner in @philabooks+philadelphia, on-line booksellers.


To view reader responses, click here.

Sign Up For Our Newsletter

Want previews of our latest stories about arts and culture in Philadelphia? Sign up for our newsletter.