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Recession Transgression: Chicago’s 50% Admission Fee Hike

Architect Renzo Piano (waving) beside Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, after the dedication ceremony for Art Institute of Chicago’s Modern Wing (Piano’s wife, Milly, faces the camera.)

Because I’m barred from blogging about a subject for which I have a pending assignment from the Wall Street Journal, I’ve been unable until now to comment on what has, unfortunately for the Art Institute of Chicago, become a recurrent theme in media coverage of the opening of its new Modern Wing—the museum’s hefty 50 percent admissions fee increase, from $12 to $18 for adult non-Chicagoans.

Now that my piece appraising the new wing has been published, it’s gloves-off time.

The fee increase undermines the celebratory, public-spirit of the opening by alienating recession-hit culture lovers who need the aesthetic and spiritual sustenance that art museums can provide, but who also find that they must cut back on discretionary spending.

What’s more, it is contrary to the previously published views of the museum’s own director, James Cuno, who now argues that the big fee hike is defraying the cost of increasing the hours when admission is free.

In the museum’s Admission Fee FAQs on its website, it gives a different reason for the increase:

The increase in the fee reflects the overall rise in operating costs for the museum. The increase is essential, if the Art Institute is to continue to uphold its mission and serve its community.

Cuno indicated to me during a phone interview after my Chicago sojourn that the increased cost of operating the new wing did not prompt the fee increase: Some $85 million from the capital campaign was used to beef up the endowment, making the expansion “cost-neutral,” he stated. The design and construction costs for the expansion totaled $294 million. The capital campaign, which has thus far raised $410 million, is also funding the major reinstallations and renovations throughout the museum, for which some $15 million remains to be raised.

Ironically, before he arrived at the Art Institute (and at a time when the museum’s then $10 entry fee was merely “recommended,” not compulsory), Cuno himself had urged Chicago’s then director, James Wood (now president of the J. Paul Getty Trust), to consider free admission, because fees “discourage short visits and long looking.” In comments made in 2002 and subsequently published in the Cuno-edited book, Whose Muse?, he directly challenged his predecessor:

Why don’t you make admission free for local residents?

Locals were granted a $2 admissions break (to $16) on the upped admission fee, but only after a Chicago alderman insisted that the museum do a better job of living up to its billing as “the nation’s greatest civic museum,” as Cuno calls it. Chicago’s mayor, Richard Daley, told me after the dedication ceremony for the Modern Wing that he was untroubled by the new pricing: “This museum has always given access to people, over many years, in our public schools system—many thousands of children and families,” he said, before his public relations person shielded him from further queries.

Fending off criticism, Cuno has taken to suggesting that his museum might be able to offer free admission if it could raise another $250 million in endowment funds. “If there’s a goal to do that, you can rally people to it,” he told Time magazine’s art critic, Richard Lacayo, who quoted Cuno in his Looking Around blog.

I’m guessing that after a $410 million capital campaign, the $250 million free-admission campaign will not be launched any time soon.

In the above-linked Admission Fee FAQs, the museum is at pains to call attention to the areas of its facility that ARE free to the public:

  • The North and South gardens (accessible from Michigan Avenue)
  • The [Renzo Piano-designed] Nichols Bridgeway from Millennium Park
  • The new sculpture terrace on the third floor of the Modern Wing
  • The new Ryan Education Center in the Modern Wing and all programs for families and children within the Center

There’s just one problem: With the exception of the sculpture terrace, now home to Scott Burton‘s granite and limestone chairs, there’s no art there. Here’s the view from the terrace:

Two children, not wanting to sit, have found a better use for Burton’s uncomfortable but ingenious chairs. To the right, through the windows, you can glimpse Piano’s pedestrian walkway, leading to the terrace from the Frank Gehry bandshell, across Millennium Park from the Modern Wing.

an ArtsJournal blog