For as long as museums have existed, they’ve faced a vexing question — is it better to get the largest possible audience or bring in the highest possible revenue? Ignore the first point and the space risks missing the point of being a museum; ignore the second and the space might face existential financial questions.
There’s no easy answer, and the class action lawsuit against the Metropolitan Museum of Art that was resolved a few years ago illustrates some of the issues at stake. On the other side of the United States, a group of museums in and around Los Angeles are trying something different — embracing free admission. And, as a recent article in The Art Newspaper reveals, these museums are seeing dramatic increases in attendance as a result.
Among the museums cited in the piece is the Orange County Museum of Art, which opened a new building in October and announced a decade of free admission. This attracted over 90,000 attendees in three months, an attendance figure comparable to what the museum had previously seen over the span of four years. It’s is far from alone in this; other Los Angeles institutions like The Broad and the Getty have similar policies.
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Are these museums’ policies here to stay? Ann Philbin, the Hammer Museum’s director, was blunt when asked whether said museum might go back on its free admission policy. “[T]here is no going backwards on free,” Philbin told The Art Newspaper.
It’s a policy that involves a host of challenges when it comes to raising money, to be sure — but the potential for bringing new audiences to see memorable works of art seems like a worthy tradeoff.
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