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OK, Let’s Talk Museum Admissions

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In its switch to a free general admissions policy (beginning January 21), the Dallas Museum of Art joins a significant number of art museums around the country, such as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art [see comments below], the Cleveland Museum of Art and even the giant Metropolitan Museum in New York, which is ostensibly free. (A current consumer-fraud lawsuit alleges, though, that the Met so aggressively pushes ‘recommended’ donations that 85 percent of visitors who were polled didn’t know it was free.)

From their origins, some art museums were conceived as free institutions — such as the Crow Collection of Asian Art and the Amon Carter Museum of American Art. The new museum was seen either as a benefit bestowed on the public by the museum’s philanthropic founders or as a civic institution for all citizens. A number of museums, like the Detroit Institute of Art, for instance, charge only out-of-town visitors. Detroit residents are admitted free because Detroit tax dollars support the DIA.

According to Anne Bergeron, the DMA’s new associate director of external affairs, the presence of nearby free-admissions museums — the Crow Collection, the Amon Carter and the Kimbell in Fort Worth — did not create any sort of pressure on the DMA’s decision to go free. This wasn’t about competition for tourist dollars, she said. She echoed DMA director Maxwell Anderson in arguing that the new policy reflects an attempt to remove any financial barrier, any sense of intimidation visitors might feel about attending an art museum. Anderson has long been a proponent of opening up museums to the public — either through online efforts like the DMA’s new ‘curated data display,’ its Dashboard or through free admissions.

Of course, even with ticketed admission, museums like the DMA have offered freebies — either free evenings per week, or per month, free student or veterans’ admission, etc. But these policies tend to be complicated and are hardly coordinated among the Arts District’s groups, so that a free first Saturday at the Nasher, say, will never line up with a free Tuesday at the DMA.

So the DMA will become what Anderson called the only Dallas arts institution “of scale” that offers free admission (in pointed contrast to, say, the new Perot museum’s $15 admission for adults, $10 for children — two parents and two kids makes it $50, which is reasonable if the competition is a 3D movie. But then, at the Perot, the movies cost extra). But in doing so, the DMA has created a new, easily grasped, seemingly one-sized approach to the general public — free admissions, free membership to its new DMA Friends level — while also establishing a complex array of new and different levels of engagement. These are manifest in both the new Friends’ efforts (either online in ‘liking’ the DMA or physically participating in DMA offerings like the Center for Creative Connection) and the whole new, upgraded membership level, now called DMA Partners, with its many donorship packages.

All of these new levels of engagement (some of them free) are what is novel about Anderson’s new policy. After all, any arts institution that tosses out ticket revenue for increased donor support is making the same statement of purpose and values. It’s acknowledging that a) tickets really don’t generate THAT much revenue in a large arts group’s budget, b) nonetheless, it’s good to recognize that wider civic support and goodwill do matter in a lot of ways and c) we get to look noble by dispensing with the whole, grubby, commercial nature of charging people.

In today’s press conference, for example, Anderson made much of the unpleasant ‘transactional’ nature of most museums’ financial dealings with the public: asking people to pay, demanding to know if they’re members, etc. Yet the entire system of earning points he has set up for the DMA Friends seems equally transactional, if not a little childish. Instead of simply handing over cash, a visitor gets to noodle with a digital kiosk and play games to win rewards. It’s just that these transactions are meant to go beyond “You give us money, we give you access.”  They’re now more like “You give us time and attention, we’ll give you more stuff to see and do. Or hey, how about some free parking?”

I suspect Robert Stein, the DMA’s new deputy director who helped develop this entire program, knows full well: Rather than a nobler effort above and beyond grubby merchandise reality, this switch actually reflects the changes roiling retail these days. It’s the switch from the old bricks-and-mortar school of customer relations (“Hey, you gonna buy that or not?) to the apparently more customizable, more sociable, social-media relationship retailers craft online for us these days: asking us to ‘friend’ them, setting us up on e-newsletters lists, getting a lot of demographic data on us, keeping us apprised of great bargains (“Just for you, you special person you!”), inviting us to open houses, cocktail parties, sending us a little freebie with our fifth order, etc.

Maybe, buried somewhere amid all these new tiers of engagement, a DMA Friend gets notified of any flashmobs being organized. Probably not.

But will we be told when any French posters are 30 percent off in the gift shop?

Image from nofanalone.

 

 

  • Richard Zupancic

    It is not true that LACMA has free admission (to non-members) to the permanent collections every day, like Cleveland has been since the 1930’s. LACMA is free on selected days/conditions. Of significant metropolitan art museums, St.Louis and the Nelson-Atkins (Kansas City) are also free – there could be others.

    R. Zupancic

  • JeromeWeeks

    You are right. I looked at LACMA’s admissions policies online and saw all the ‘frees’ (free to members, free to under 18) and concluded wrongly that it had free admission.