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More museums skip admission

Can free museums inspire cultural institutions in Chicago?

Steve Johnson

4:04 PM EDT, July 25, 2014

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Let's start with this: Any cultural institution that has even a smidgen of belief in the part of its mission statement that talks about education and outreach and community service would love to be free. So, all of them.

Let's also include this: Kevin Bell, who heads Lincoln Park Zoo, the only privately funded free zoo in the United States, says some of his peers around Chicago have asked him what it takes to run such an operation while letting your customers walk right through the gates, wallets unopened, credit cards unswiped.

"I will say, without naming names, I've talked to other institutions in the city about our model," Bell told me last week.

Let's pause for a second to remember this: A family of four visiting almost any of Chicago's major big-building culture houses and buying more than bare-minimum admissions will easily drop $100, food and parking not included. It's not quite Major League Baseball game money — and certainly the quality is higher at museums than at Chicago's ballparks this year — but it can be a significant budgetary dent.

And then, unavoidably, fascinatingly, there is this: Around the country, a number of high-profile museums have, in fact, gone from fee to free in (relatively) recent years: The Indianapolis Museum of Art, the Dallas Museum of Art and, just in February, the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, announcing the move with this tagline: "For you. For LA. For good."

Wal-Mart heir Alice Walton's Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark., opened as a free museum, with admission sponsored by a Wal-Mart grant. The forthcoming Broad Museum, also in LA, will be free.

These institutions join freebies-from-birth such as Lincoln Park Zoo, the Smithsonian Institution museums in Washington and the Cleveland Museum of Art. Going free is not a trend, entirely: The National Building Museum in the nation's capital recently went back to charging a fee, for example, as have some others.

But this small flurry of newly open-entry museums — call them the free radicals — is producing such happiness that it is enough to get museum executives rubbing their chins.

The Dallas Museum of Art went free — for both general admission and basic membership — in 2013, and "it has paid off," said Maxwell Anderson, the director, who had led the Indianapolis Museum of Art back to free admission. With three months left in the current fiscal year, attendance at the Dallas museum was at 517,000, compared with 542,000 for the previous, entire fiscal year and 480,000 the year before that. It has 71,000 free, base-level members with almost 14,000 more voluntarily paying at least $100 for membership compared with about 21,000 total members before the switch.

And — here's the big success — several months after the policy in Dallas began, an anonymous donor made a $9 million gift to the museum because of the policy.

"That's a lot of $10 admissions," Anderson said.

To be sure, most of the movement is happening in the art museum world. Partly, they tend to have bigger endowments than other types of museums. But history and science museums and zoos, "inherently they're a bit more populist," said Anderson. "People feel the need to go to them. We (art museums) are more elective in most cities."

Still, it is something to think about and — no pressure (wink, wink) on Chicago's museums and the donor class that already provides much of their funding anyway — something to hope for and aspire to here.

"There is quite a clamor in the field for organizations to be free, to think about free admission," said Susan Chun, chief content officer at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art. "Certainly we think about it here all the time."

For now, the MCA is free for Illinoisans every Tuesday, and it tries to pack those days with significant programming, Chun said.

Most other major Chicago institutions at least run free days or free evenings, but that's a very different thing from being flat-out, full-time free.

"Free days creates a cavalcade that's uncomfortable, where everybody piles in, and you all feel to some degree conditional," said Anderson. "To me, that's an unhappy kind of pushing people into the second-class car."

Still, it is hard to imagine a major museum here going free, especially when the trend in Chicago has been to raise prices and to start charging admission: The Museum of Science and Industry and Adler Planetarium, for instance, were free until the 1990s.

Also gone in most places, here and nationwide, are the old, genteel "suggested" admission fees. Although the MCA does retain such wording, the Art Institute, for instance, switched to a fixed fee in 2006 (then $12, now up to $23 for out-of-staters). A former Michigan Avenue museum, the Terra, used to ask for a "mandatory donation."

"We are seeing a number of museums who are experimenting with going to free to try to be as accessible as possible to people," said Elizabeth Merritt, founding director of the Center for the Future of Museums, an initiative of the American Alliance of Museums. "But we see an equal number of museums who can't make that work financially because that's a necessary income stream for them.

"All museums would like to be free, but someone still has to pay the bills."

And there are special circumstances in Chicago that make going free less enticing than in cities with smaller institutions and fewer tourists, said Anderson. Along with art museums in New York, LA and San Francisco, he put the Art Institute in the very small "basket of institutions that have unusual access to high-net-worth, large-scale audiences, including tourism."

So where Dallas, with annual expenses of about $28 million, was drawing 2.7 percent of its operating income from general admission, at the Art Institute, the figure is more like 11percent of a budget that's over $100million. It would take an awful lot of big gifts to replace $11.8 million annually.

"We took that 2.7 percent risk," Anderson said. "We said the arithmetic isn't worth our current policy if the impact of going free could be so much more valuable to us."

Debra Kerr, a former Shedd Aquarium executive and local museum consultant, said, "We are all sort of watching Dallas to see what happens. I'm just not sure that every museum can sustain (being free). The aquariums are really, really expensive to operate." (Shedd's operating expenses were $56.2 million in 2013; it took in $33.8million in admission revenue.)

And, she added, "Tourists are not price sensitive" in the same way that local visitors are.

The Hammer Museum in LA was able to go free by getting two donors to back free admission for four years with a $2 million gift. It is already seeing payoffs in the first half-year.

"We're noticing a 25 percent increase in attendance since going free," said Samuel Vasquez, director of events and visitor experience. "Ethnic diversity has been something you can notice any time you come to the Hammer now."

It's been good for morale too.

"It makes people proud that we are an open platform for visitors," said Christopher Mangum-James, assistant manager for visitor experience. "Having that identity has really resonated among the staff."

Along with the new admission policy, the Hammer made its galleries friendlier, shifting security personnel, formerly in blazers, to T-shirts and more of an informational role. And there's a new way to become a member; instead of paying for it, guests tally 12 visits in a year.

In other words, going free is not just about taking down the turnstiles. Dallas instituted a system that awards points for scanning a member card in galleries, thereby providing valuable new data on how visitors spend their time at the museum.

Being free just makes a place different, said Bell, of Lincoln Park Zoo.

"Donors have said to me, 'Well, have you thought about just charging a quarter, even?'" Bell said. "I don't care if you charge a dime. It is still a charge. Free is different than any amount of money you might charge. ... And a lot of people will support this institution because it is free."

In Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, another art museum has learned that being free can pay.

At the National Museum of Mexican Art, there was never a question of charging admission, said founder Carlos Tortolero.

"We've always been free," Tortolero said. "When I started the museum, there were three things people told me I was crazy for: one, doing a museum in a working-class neighborhood; two, starting an arts museum in a working-class neighborhood; and, three, being free. They told me it couldn't be done. Twenty-seven years later, we've done it."

Not charging works on multiple levels, he said. First, it helps ensure diversity.

"I remember one time I was here with some European writers, and an African-American group walked out, and a Chinese group walked in, and the writers were just scratching their heads," said Tortolero.

While you think it would put pressure on the budget, it actually helps the fundraising. The museum's sponsor list is packed with big corporate names such as Target, Allstate and Sara Lee.

"A lot of foundations, corporations support this policy," he said. "It doesn't change our fundraising; we are super-aggressive. It just changes who we get funds from."

And there is one benefit being free provides that just might be the most enticing of all.

"We never have any complaints," Tortolero said. "If people don't like it, they can leave."

sajohnson@tribune.com

Twitter @StevenKJohnson