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Dallas Fallacy: Should Museums&#146 Admission Be Free? (Should Nasher Sculpture Center be glare-free?) CORRECTED

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If this works for the Dallas Museum of Art, fine.

Maxwell Anderson, the DMA’s director, has thrown down the populist gauntlet by trumpeting his museum’s decision (effective Jan. 21) to offer not only free admission (eliminating the current $10 adult fee) but also “free membership” (which won’t offer the same benefits as paid membership, such as the soon-to-be obsolete perk of free entry).

While admirable in intent—making the museum more accessible to constituents from South Dallas, as well as from tonier Highland Park—this Big D development is unlikely to start a nationwide stampede to free entry. Nor should it. While increasing public access to museums is to be applauded, dropping admission fees only makes sense if it’s financially sustainable.

Anderson says that admission income defrays a negligible portion of museums’ operating expenses, suggesting that it’s easily expendable. But if we crunch Max’s own numbers, his analysis is debatable at best.

In this CultureGrrl Video (at about 9:30) and in recent comments to the press laying out his argument for scrapping admission fees, Anderson alludes to an analysis of the 2010 financials of 130 member museums of the Association of Art Museum Directors. They reported a total of about $2.1 billion in operating expenses and some $116 million in admission income, he said. From this he concluded that ticket sales paid and average of only about 4% of the operating budgets.

First of all, his math was wrong. $116 million is 5.5%, not 4%, of $2.1 billion. When I pointed this out in an e-mailed query, Max responded:

The 4% is a raw estimate if you back out the Met’s, MoMA’s and Guggenheim’s combined (self-reported) ticket revenue.

But in the above-linked CultureGrrl Video (from a recent New York panel on museums’ funding challenges), Max had said that backing out those three museums’ numbers would result in a 2% (not 4%) contribution of admission income to total operating income. Either way, the percentage is still relatively small. But accuracy matters.

More problematic, though, is the fact that Max’s calculations for total operating expenses included museums that already had free admission and therefore got 0% of their operating income from admission fees. A far more telling calculation (not made) would have broken out only those museums that actually charge for entry and tallied what portion of their operating budgets came from admissions—undoubtedly a lot higher than 4%, and not so easily written off.

Further skewing Max’s calculations is the fact that museums getting no income at all from admissions often have very sizable operating budgets—for example, the Smithsonian museums, National Gallery, Nelson-Atkins, Minneapolis, Baltimore, Kimbell and, more recently, the new Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. These tend to be institutions with some direct government support (organized, like the DMA, under public, rather than private, auspices) and/or strong endowment support.

At the Indianapolis Museum of Art, where Anderson was previously director, 2010 operating expenses totaled $35.75 million, with admissions bringing in $1.59 million (4.4%). At the DMA, 2012 general admissions revenue in fiscal 2012 provided 2.28% of the total operating revenue of $21.1 million, while special exhibition revenue accounted for another 5.55% of total revenue.

[CORRECTION: Due my own error, not Anderson's, a previous version of this post wrongly ascribed the Indianapolis figures to Dallas, and did not report the figures for the DMA's admission revenue.]

At the recent New York panel featured in my above-linked video, Tom Campbell, director of the Metropolitan Museum, emphasized that a not inconsiderable 15% of his institution’s operating expenses is defrayed by admission income. At a time when many museums are under considerable financial pressure, every buck counts.

Sensing from my questions where I was going with this, Anderson wrote me the following:

The financials are obviously of key interest to us, but the transition was philosophically driven, with an understanding that there are risks involved, and that our generous supporters will back this new program up if the first-year forecasts fall short.

In other words, Anderson has already prudently touched base with Texas’ robust philanthropic community to ensure that free admissions won’t be a budget-buster. He also expects increased income from the “increased volume of visitors, many of whom will elect to spend on exhibition tickets or join as partners.” “Partners” will pay fees for various benefits—a “members” model by a different name. Those with “memberships” will accrue points from various forms of museum participation, which will eventually earn them benefits (like free parking).

Dallas will continue to charge, however, for special exhibitions (probably around $14, Anderson told me). So while the permanent collection will be for everyone, expensive-to-mount blockbusters will be primarily for the well-heeled.

I still favor the much maligned (and now sued) Metropolitan Museum model—a recommended (not mandatory) admission fee that gives anyone the freedom to pay whatever he wants, giving him access to the entire museum, including special exhibitions. It’s an open-to-all policy that pricks the conscience of anyone who can and should pay something for the riches that the Met has to offer. It’s wonderful if a museum feels it can afford to be free. But bills have to be paid, usually from a wide variety of income streams. There’s no shame in relying on admission, as part of that mix.

That said, I’d like to see museums offer free admission to everyone 18 and under, because young people—the audiences that all forward-looking museums need to cultivate—are the most likely to feel intimidated at the gate. My art history “degree” came not through formal education but from my regular drop-ins, through adolescence and beyond, at the Metropolitan Museum, Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim. (Admission at the Met back then was free, and I regularly attended summer in-gallery lectures.)

No word yet on whether the neighboring Nasher Sculpture Center, which used to participate in a discounted dual-admission program with the DMA, will follow suit on free admission. I have a query in with its director, Jeremy Strick, and will update here if I hear.

Meanwhile, Strick has thrown down a very different type of gauntlet—a Call to Action letter (linked from the museum’s homepage) that is addressed to both the Dallas community and concerned citizens at large. It urges all to contact that city’s council representatives to protest the harm being inflicted—upon the carefully calibrated experience within the Nasher’s Renzo Piano-designed galleries and in its outdoor garden—by the harsh glare emanating from the new Museum Tower, a 42-story luxury condo with a skin of highly reflective glass:

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Cover of the May 2012 issue of “D” magazine

In his online plea, Strick endorsed the “louver solution” advocated in a Nov. 19 letter from Dallas civic leaders to the Dallas Morning News. He called on the leadership of Museum Tower to implement that fix “without further delay. This practical 100% solution would eliminate dangerous reflected light at its source, protecting the Nasher’s interior and exterior galleries.” But Museum Tower officials countered that the proposed louvers would obscure views, making apartments unattractive to buyers.

Willard Spiegelman, reporting on this dispute in two weeks ago in the Wall Street Journal, wrote that “only 15 of the 126 [Museum Tower] apartments (priced at $1.3 million to $4.5 million, not including the $20 million penthouse) have sold.”I wrote about the Piano’s “simple but stunning skylit space,” where the late real estate developer Raymond Nasher‘s collection is “invitingly arrayed,” in a Feb. 5, 2004 Wall Street Journal article entitled, “Are Single-Collector ‘Jewel Box’ Museums Becoming and Endangered Species?”Once again (as with two other examples I cited—the now relocated (Albert) Barnes Foundation and the now defunct (Daniel) Terra Museum of American Art—the answer to the question in my WSJ headline appears, sadly, to be “Yes.”

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