An article in today’s Detroit Free Press reports on how “attendance more than tripled last week compared with the same five-day period in 2011,” after the Detroit Institute of Arts made admission free to residents of three local counties “in exchange for voters’ approval a day earlier of a property tax in all three counties to support the museum.”
The bump in attendance was helped by ongoing special exhibitions, as well as media attention on the local tax measure which is designed to sustain the museum by enabling it to grow its endowment.
Other museums which have “gone free” also report substantial growth in attendance.
At the Baltimore Museum of Art, a recent contemporary show drew 80% more visitors than the average contemporary show prior to eliminating admission in 2006.
“The Baltimore museum is drawing an average of 43% more first-time visitors since it went free.
“The Indianapolis Museum of Art reinstituted free admission in 2007 after briefly charging a fee in the wake of an expansion. Attendance soared 152% in the first year after eliminating the fee, but a blockbuster show of Roman art that year from the Louvre in Paris attracted 112,000 and surely skewed the numbers, said Candace Gwaltey, public relations manager at the museum.”
It’s encouraging that city museums around the country are finding ways to fulfill their civic roles as cultural stewards in the public commons, by not only making art accessible to everyone regardless of financial status, but also removing the troubling burden of earned income from the ticket gate while drawing ever larger audiences.
It’s ironic that by making museums free, the resulting growth in attendance could only make corporate sponsors happy (right?), thus leading to greater sustainability. Could this be a wave of the future?