The iron law of museum admissions is that they can only go up—or up, up, up in the case of some institutions, like the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where it is now $25 for an adult to visit (the Met’s is a suggested price, granted). And so it is intriguing to learn today that the High Museum of Art in Atlanta has decided to cut its admission fee for adults from $19.50 to $14.50, taking $5 off the price.
The price change goes into effect October 1, when $14.50 will be the going rate not just for adults but also for all visitors aged 6 and up. That actually represents a price hike of $2.50 for children aged 6 to 17, who can currently get into the museum for $12. (Students, who are now charged $16.50, will come out $2 ahead in the new pricing system, paying $14.50 as well.) Children 5 and under will continue to be free, as will members.
To break this down a bit, if you’re an adult and you bring one child between the ages of 6 and 17 to the High, you’re going to save $2.50 come October 1, and if you bring in two children, you’re going to be paying what you paid before. If you bring in three kids, you’re actually going to be paying $2.50 more than you would have been previously. (If more than one parent is chaperoning, of course, the numbers improve a bit.) So this is a nice symbolic change, a step in the right direction, but it doesn’t feel like it is significantly going to alter the financial barrier to get into the High, for many families.
A press rep for the High noted in an email that the museum will continue “to offer free admission to all patrons on the second Sunday of each month.”
Some museums have eliminated their admission fees entirely, like the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and the Bronx Museum of the Arts, the last through a grant from Shelley and Donald Rubin in 2012, which was followed by an attendance increase of 50 percent. The Indianapolis Museum is a more-cautionary tale: it eliminated admission fees in 2007, only to reinstate them in 2015, saying that it needed to do so to shore up its financial position.
Back in 2006, critic Roberta Smith made an eloquent case in the New York Times for lowering and eliminating museum admissions fees, arguing that artworks, like books, “should be equally available to all, for the good of the individual and society as a whole. Most Americans would be appalled if public libraries charged entrance fees.” Smith argued that “[i]f museums were to broadcast unequivocally that their first priority is art and the public’s contact with art, their public image would improve and sharpen. And other things about them would start to change, from the people who sit on their boards, to the buildings they build.” Agreed.
Earlier this year, MoMA announced that it had raised an impressive $650 million toward another expansion and other expenditures, but if I had to choose, I would much rather have a MoMA that is using its fundraising prowess to ensure that every single person can visit at any time, free of charge, rather than a MoMA that is simply bigger.
Providing broader and easier access to museums is one of the defining issues of our present moment. The High Museum’s move is a baby step toward a meaningful change, but now is a time for great leaps.