I'm in Chicago for the next few weeks, and yesterday I briefly walked through Renzo Piano's new $300 million Modern Wing of the Art Institute. It's easily one of the most gorgeous spaces I've ever been in, a fabulous complement to an already-great museum, and it somehow manages to make Millenium Park even more stunning than it had been. As part of the effort to pay for it, however, the Art Institute had to raise its admission price, from $12 to $18.
The Art Institute is a world-class museum, in a world-class space, at a world-class location, and by some measures, $18 is a more than fair price for access to its collection of thousands of pieces that represent some of the finest artistic creations in human history. In addition, it's free for any resident of Chicago that checks out a pass from any library in the city. It's free for the entire month of February. It's free Thursday and Friday nights in the summer. And it's free on sporadic other days throughout the year.
All of which is wonderful, and of course $300 million doesn't come cheap these days, so money must be raised somewhere. Why not on the backs of tourists and the middle and upper classes, who can afford to pay $18 per person for the privilege of visiting whenever they like, and enjoying smaller crowds when they do?
The problem I have is that too many Chicagoans have no experience of, or connection to, the Art Institute. For them, downtown is a rare destination, or merely a place of business to which they're not welcome, unless a floor needs mopping or a bathroom, cleaning. The city needs to make more of an effort to bring its citizens together at temples of culture and learning, such as the Art Institute.
Part of this has to include reforming admission fees for museums, and making it more economically attractive for families living far away from downtown to make the trek. As this intriguing article from the American Association of Museums (from 2007, alas, so it's a bit out of date) points out, high admission fees represent a real barrier for poor and lower-income families, but the revenue from these fees make up only 5% of the operating budget for the average American art museum.
These families are kept away in part because of the perception that a trip to the museum is expensive, even when that's not necessarily the case. In 2006, the Art Institute switched from a "suggested" $12 donation to a mandatory one, but didn't see much change in visitor demographics (although the data wasn't fully in at the time of writing). Although one could argue that this indicates price isn't the real obstacle for families, since they weren't coming even though it was free to do so, I would disagree. In my experience, there's long been the perception that the Art Institute is an expensive place to go, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if many families were unaware that, before 2006, the AI was actually "free".
Families are also kept away in part because, even if the museum itself is free, the trip is definitely not. Imagine you're a family of four living an hour's train ride away from the Art Institute. Even if you think a visit would be valuable for your family, you have to pay for two train rides for each person (these days, that's $18 altogether); you have to pay for food ($10-15 at the very rock bottom); and you have to go far out of your way, which might be pretty difficult for working families. Even if the desire to visit the museum is there, getting there and paying for everything else is tough.
I think one solution might be "Neighborhood Days": instead of having free evenings during the summer, reach out to neighborhood organizations. Use the money you budget towards a free day (plus corporate/city/philanthropic sponsorship, natch) to pay for buses to take kids and their parents from their neighborhood into the AI. Have some guided tours, and let them explore on their own a bit. Give them dinner. If the parents can't make it, have some chaperones present too. Rotate from neighborhood to neighborhood every week. It's basically a field trip program, but no longer in a school context. If you do it often enough, you might get some kids and parents hooked who wouldn't otherwise have visited the museum. Offer participants free semi-membership, so they can come back whenever they want.
True, it'd be a bit expensive. But we're talking about a museum with $300 million to drop on a new building, and more besides to buy incredible works of art from around the world. Buy one fewer Matisse in the next few years, and use that money to get thousands more kids and their parents from underserved neighborhoods to visit the museum.