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Why Free Museums Matter

Gratis admission is just one way museums are trying to shed their forbidding veneer.

Maxi Jonas/Reuters

There’s an exhibition catalog on my bookshelf that catches my eye whenever I swivel in my chair. On its cover is the Waterloo Bridge, cloaked in fog, sunlight forging a path through and unrolling a white path on the water below. Since 2004, I’ve carried it with me from one apartment to the next, from Detroit to Chicago to New York. My grandmother had taken me to an exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario, a retrospective that pulled works by Turner, Whistler, and Monet into conversation.

I’d stood slack-jawed in front of the painting. It glowed like someone had struck a match inside of it. It invited me to leave my bag on the floor and walk straight into the canvas. I could almost feel the mist pruning my cheeks. The painting transported me.

I’d been to a few other museums; I’d smudged a peephole on dusty vitrines on occasional school field trips to look at jagged gemstones; I lay back in a planetarium seat watching stars blaze past on an IMAX screen overhead. But I’d never felt invited to join a conversation with a work of art—to step inside it, take a look around, and wonder what it was trying to tell me about the world and my place in it.

To ignite more and (more passionate) relationships between visitors and artwork, more than 1,200 museums across the country are flinging open their doors on Saturday, September 24, as part of Smithsonian Museum Day Live. Institutions from Michigan to Nevada are offering free tickets for the applicant and one guest, when reserved in advance. (Search by zip code and find the full list here.) Museum Day is just one prong of an ongoing campaign to chip away at the stigma that museums belong to some people, and not others. Many institutions struggle to shed the perception that they’re inscrutable and imposing, and that visitors need to wield a specialized, rarefied knowledge to earn entry.

At the dedication of the flashy new Whitney Museum in 2015, Michelle Obama explained how anxiety about accessing cultural spaces fractures along racial and socio-economic lines. (Data from the American Association of Museums indicates that, nationwide, only 9 percent of visitors are minorities.) Non-white visitors, she said, may feel especially ill at beneath soaring marble atriums:

“You see, there are so many kids in this country who look at places like museums and concert halls and other cultural centers and they think to themselves, well, that’s not a place for me, for someone who looks like me, for someone who comes from my neighborhood. In fact, I guarantee you that right now, there are kids living less than a mile from here who would never in a million years dream that they would be welcome in this museum. And growing up on the South Side of Chicago, I was one of those kids myself."

Working to equalize access to museum collections is perhaps of special importance as museum visits become less commonplace for school students. As strapped school systems work to adhere to curriculum requirements amid budgets with little wiggle room, “the museum trip, once a feature of every New York City student’s experience, is becoming endangered,” Kim Kanatani, the director of education at the Guggenheim Museum, told the New York Times. Kanatani told the Times that she and colleagues observed a decrease in school tours booked citywide. The trend held true widely: Half of U.S. schools eliminated field trips in the 2010-2011 school year, found a survey by the American Association of School Administrators.

But when they are available, demand often outpaces supply. When the Crystal Bridges museum opened Bentonville, Arkansas in 2011, an endowment enabled the institution to operate school tours for free. Applications poured in from 525 schools hoping to bring more than 38,000 students—far more than the museum was prepared to accommodate.

Free entry isn’t a cure-all. Slicing the price of admission, for instance, doesn’t solve the problems that spring from limited transit options or crunched schedules that don’t allow for much meandering. To bridge those gaps, some museums are taking their collections on the road. Under the auspices of a $2 million grant from the Knight Foundation, the Detroit Institute of Arts installs replicas of works in its collection across local communities; this summer, seven works were on view at public libraries and parks in Michigan’s Orion Township. Similar programs have been replicated in Miami and Philadelphia.

Other institutions are leveraging their online presence to connect with visitors who can’t make it to the museum in person. Kimberly Drew, the social media manager at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, who also runs the buzzworthy Tumblr Black Contemporary Art, has grown the behemoth institution’s online presence and turned up the volume on conversations about gaps in the museum’s collection. The result is an expansive dialog that engages far-flung patrons. “Only a third of our Facebook likes are from people in the United States, and even a smaller percentage is in New York,” she told Lenny. “Our community is not geo-specific. It's built around language that's inclusive.”

Still, some doubt that free museums are the only—or most effective—solution to boosting visitors. Concerns often cite fears that reducing the admissions fee will ultimately fray the bottom line. However, one museum director told Fortune that a typical institution only pockets about 4 percent of its yearly revenue from admissions—larger chunks come from endowments and fundraising. By 2015, one third of the institutions in the network of the American Association of Museum Directors offered free admission, and 5 percent posted suggested rates.

Many of those museums that have altered their admissions models have noticed a shift in visitor patterns. Attendance doubled after fees were waived to England’s national collections in 2001, said the director of London’s Natural History Museum to The Guardian. When the Dallas Museum of Art nixed its $10 admission fee, its annual attendance swelled from 498,000 to 668,000, and the institution saw a 29 percent increase in minority visitors, Fortune reported.

In some respects, museums are fairly static: permanent collections aren’t usually in wild flux; the history that they survey often unspools across millennia. They’re a snapshot of life as it was lived by the people whose worlds were deemed worthy of committing to oil and canvas. But museums are increasingly expanding the circle. They’re flooding their Instagrams and inviting users to comment via Twitter, even tapping patrons to vote on the contents of crowd-sourced exhibitions. The more voices that make it through the doors and join in the conversation, the more complete and nuanced that historical portrait will start to be.

About the Author

  • Jessica Leigh Hester
    Jessica Leigh Hester is a senior associate editor at CityLab. She writes about culture, sustainability, and green spaces, and lives in Brooklyn.