Art Museum's admission hike

Killing the golden sucker

Rub: Undermined from the outset?
Rub: Undermined from the outset?

The Philadelphia Museum of Art recently increased its admission rates by $2 across the board, thereby reinforcing its reputation as a place for the haves and the have-mores. To be sure, even at $16 a peek (the new top charge), the Art Museum is worth every penny. The museum's collection is world-class, and worth the visit at any reasonable price— once.

Where pricing gets dicey is when a non-tourist visitor, like me, wants to visit frequently. That pinches my purse, and the museum, like its brethren institutions, knows it. That's where Plan B kicks in, in the form of the unstated policy of promoting annual memberships (now starting at $65 per annum).

Museums like to lock in members, because members represent another revenue fund-raising tier that can be solicited in a variety of creative ways. Moreover, fund-raisers love to present the breadth of rank-and-file membership to heavy-hitter donors as proof of an institution's community support. (Foundations love proof of community support.)

Philly isn't Broadway

But this fund-raising model is so 20th century. (Not 19th century— in the 1800s, the "gate" didn't matter). What the Art Museum has adopted, to its peril, is the Museum of Modern Art model of revenue enhancement. In other words, Broadway-sized prices. (MOMA's current rack rate is $20.)

That might work in the Big Apple, home of the Great White Way. Whether it will fly in the home of the Philly cheese steak is quite another matter. Unlike New York, Philadelphia lacks a natural, unlimited flow of tourists seeking cultural nourishment and willing to pay Broadway prices. (Philadelphia's tourists prefer the family-oriented kiddy stuff, like the Independence Hall and the Ducks tour combo).

In other words, the Art Museum is killing the golden sucker at the very time when it needs that visitor the most.

A better way

Instead of spending millions on a new parking garage, the Art Museum should explore the 21st-Century model of museum financing, adopted most recently and most successfully in Britain. That is a free gate, coupled with price gouging for blockbuster shows and for museum-related gift items (areas where, to be sure, the Art Museum is already well up to speed).

"Free" visitors in fact constitute an important revenue source. A few weeks ago, for example, I visited The National Gallery in London. Admission: Free. My gift shop bill: About $150. My café bill: About $20. Who won?

How is this free pricing policy actually possible? Because it's not really free; it's subsidized by government and foundation grants. Not sham subsidies like the sponsorships for the recent "Cézanne and Beyond." That money goes into the Museum's general fund— never to reduce admission.

Freebies for teachers and journalists

Museums in France are free to students, teachers and journalists. That's a good start. It represents a shrewd perception that teachers and journalists reach audiences— a valuable commodity to museums.

Even the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, arguably the world's greatest museum, is free. What's that you say? You've always paid at the Met? But that's because you haven't read the fine print. Met admission prices are donations: You pay as you wish.

The "free" model has also been adopted by some private museums. The Getty in Los Angeles doesn't charge (but look out for those stiff parking/tram fees!). The Walters in Baltimore, in a Philadelphia-like urban environment, also gets away without charging. Even the Cleveland Museum of Art is free— a signature achievement directly attributable its former director, Timothy Rub, who was just announced as the new director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. That the Art Museum board would raise its admission fees, knowing full well of Rub's commitment to free entry, is almost unconscionable.

Needed: Political hardball players

The Art Museum and its trade group should get serious with the Nutter and Rendell administrations about funding for the Museum— funding on a par with, say, government support for pro sports stadiums. Museum directors don't seem to know how play political hardball. But Timothy Rub, at least, showed that it's possible in Cleveland. Why not apply his magic formula here?

Until then, I'll continue to subscribe to my own free-ish admission policy at the Art Museum, by showing up on pay-as-you-wish Sundays. The Museum's new Scrooge-like policy still allows one discounted Sunday per month. See you there. Here's my buck.♦

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