Perspectives

At the Art Museum Ticket Office, How Much Is Too Much?

Or, the admission fee is too damn high

Inside Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrored Room at the Broad.

THE BROAD

Yesterday the Los Angeles Times delivered the news that the Broad museum in Los Angeles will release almost all of the tickets for its upcoming “Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors” exhibition—around 50,000 of them—at the same moment, on September 1 at 12:00 p.m. PT. That is a notable break from how many art museums have dealt with blockbuster shows: by having people line up and wait or by partitioning their tickets out daily in various ways. “It will be a matter of hours,” the Broad’s director, Joanne Heyler, told the Times. “There will be high demand.”

But even more remarkable than the news that the Broad is adopting the strategy of a concert promoter was the astounding price that it tagged on those tickets: $25 for adults. (Children 12 and under are free.) That is a full $10 more than the general admission price at the Museum of Contemporary Art, which is located across the street from the Broad, and the same price as a ticket for admittance and all the special exhibitions at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

The $25 fee is also eye-popping since the same exhibition had no charge when it was on view earlier this year at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., where all Smithsonian museums are, of course, free. (It should be noted, though, that Hirshhorn officials did big business selling $50-and-up memberships that guaranteed entry to Kusama’s mirrored rooms. Free tickets sold out almost immediately when they were made available online each day.)

The exhibition includes six of Kusama’s wildly popular Infinity Mirror Rooms, so that means visitors will be paying about $4.17 per Infinity Room (a rather steep price for a fairly ho-hum experience, in my humble opinion). A limited number of same-day tickets will be available for the show, which opens October 21, for a cool $30, or $5 a room. Amazingly, tickets for the show are even pricier—$34.95 apiece—at the Seattle Art Museum, where it opened three weeks ago. (Advance tickets, sold in two waves by SAM, have sold out. Same-day tickets on the first Thursday of each month are half price.)

When the Broad, a private museum built by billionaires Eli and Edythe Broad at a cost of $140 million, opened free to the public in 2015, Eli told NPR, “We wanted to share it with the broadest possible public. That’s why we have free admission.” The permanent collection would always be free, the Broad said, while certain special exhibitions would have admissions fees. Its Cindy Sherman show last year, for instance, was $12 for adults, less than half the price of the Kusama exhibition.

The $25 price is intriguing since it is just about the (very lofty) ceiling for art museum tickets in the United States. The Museum of Modern Art in New York,the Art Institute of Chicago (which had a suggested fee until 2006), and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art all charge that for adults, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art suggests that adult visitors pay the same. (As of 2014, Met visitors were reportedly paying an average of $11. As an aside, the AIC also has a $35 “Fast Pass” ticket.) At the risk of stating the obvious, in all those instances, visitors are at least getting a full museum of artworks—thousands of them—for their money. At the Broad, they will get a single show for their $25 (or $30).

And yet, the Broad’s fee is not wildly out of step with the prices charged by some U.S. museums for access to special exhibitions. While the Brooklyn Museum’s $16 adult charge is suggested, those hoping to see some of its shows, like its superb Georgia O’Keeffe presentation, have to pay a mandatory $20. At the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, shows by Ron Mueck, Pipilotti Rist, and “Paint the Revolution: Mexican Modernism, 1910–1950” each cost $18 (a fee that includes access to the permanent collections, which is otherwise $15), and a combination ticket for all three is a steep $30.

There have been other disappointing developments on the admission-fees front recently. In 2015, in order to shore up its finances, the Indianapolis Museum of Art instituted an $18 fee for adults after seven years of being admission-free, and last year SFMOMA reopened after an ambitious $305-million expansion with that $25 ticket price and not a single hour of regularly scheduled free or corporate-subsidized admission. Meanwhile, the Met has proffered a proposal to charge a mandatory fee to visitors from outside New York in the hope of closing its own budget gap.

There is no doubt that, with government and corporate funding always tenuous, it can be difficult for museums to balance their budgets and commit to major changes in financial structures, but as New York Times critic Roberta Smith noted in an essential column on the status of museum admission fees in 2006, many institutions have successfully eliminated paid tickets over the years, like the Baltimore Museum, Cincinnati Art Museum (special exhibitions are still $10), the Dallas Museum of Art ($16 for special exhibitions), and the Bronx Museum of the Arts.

It is striking that, as some smaller museums have at least made general admission free, many of the most elite museums in the United States have continued to charge all comers. The logic is easy enough to understand: museums with high attendance stand to lose a lot of money by eliminating admissions fees, and some disproportionally rely on ticket sales to meet their budgets. (Data shows that most museums receive just 6 percent of their earned revenue from ticket sales, while the Met makes 13 percent from ticket sales.)

One has to note that these are the same museums that regularly raise outside sums of money to pay for big building projects, even as they make no real effort to address ticket prices. While commending the Broads for displaying their collection for free (setting aside that it is largely blue chip and predictable), we can still say that it looks peculiar for them to spend $140 million on a building and then charge $25 for a show. The same goes for SFMOMA and its current admissions fees.

The common refrain from development professionals is that it is easier to raise money for buildings than programs, which is no doubt true, but one wishes that museum directors would push for the latter as much as the former. In New York, MoMA has raised money hand over fist for its latest expansion, which is budgeted at $400 million, and now that its construction plans are covered it is running up the total on its endowment. Couldn’t some of those funds go toward reducing its punishing admission price, or at least expanding its free hours? For now, we watch and hope and wait.

In her 2006 piece, Smith compared museums with libraries and wrote, “Most Americans would be appalled if public libraries charged entrance fees.” And yet, that argument has not yet successfully persuaded enough of the people who write big checks or the museum directors who could make such efforts a priority. According to the Association of Art Museum Directors, about 59 percent of museums charge, while only 34 percent offer free admission. Even as the art market has exploded in value over the past decade and the wealthiest arts philanthropists have grown far wealthier, huge fees remain at many of the most elite art institutions in the U.S.

There are conflicting examples of free admission increasing or decreasing overall attendance, but I would not stake this argument on raw attendance numbers. Rather, eliminating or reducing admission fees seems like a vital matter of principal—a way of acknowledging, as Smith argued, that art matters in the same way that books matter. It is a way of actually living up to the lip service that is so often paid to the value of the art.

As space in the U.S. becomes increasingly corporatized, art museums can be a place of exception, where nothing—OK, very little—is for sale, where we can spend time looking and thinking and talking together. Christopher Knight has written about the joy of visiting art museums and not being asked for money, and I can only add that I have had the same pleasure, having my first interactions with staffers at the Menil Collection or the Baltimore Museum or the Cincinnati Museum be them asking if they can offer me directions to some part of the museum. (A requisite disclosure: my AICA—International Association of Art Critics—card means that I never actually pay to visit an art museum.) I am dreaming of a day when we can convince potential donors that funding a generous or completely free admissions policy is as impressive and commendable as funding a chic new museum wing.

In the meantime, the Broad’s $25 Kusama tickets will no doubt go like hot cakes, probably in large part to Kusama fans with quick fingers and money to spend. Whatever one thinks of the Infinity Rooms, they represent a rare crossover moment of contemporary art into popular culture. They could be gateway drugs for future art fans. Unfortunately, the system used by the Broad and the Seattle Art Museum for distributing and pricing the tickets mirrors the worst aspects of the contemporary world—its exclusionary behavior and its fixation on surface-level hype. The September 1 sale will be business as usual. It will also be a missed opportunity.

Update, July 19, 8:25 a.m.: Added information about tickets for the Kusama show at the Seattle Art Museum.
Update, July 27: Corrected information about SAM’s ticket pricing.

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