Saturday, May 17, 2003

Art museum 'free' policy begins today

$2.15M gift may boost attendance, diversity

By Jim Knippenberg
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The Cincinnati Art Museum has a message for the Queen City: Put away the wallet and come on in. It's free all the time, starting at 10 a.m. today.

The free general admission policy (some touring exhibits will still carry a charge) coincides with today's opening of the 15-gallery Cincinnati Wing, a one-of-its-kind collection of art by Cincinnatians or artists with strong Cincinnati ties.

The Cincinnati Art Museum celebrates the opening of the Cincinnati Wing and its new free admission policy with Lois and Dick Rosenthal cutting the ribbon at 10 a.m. It also celebrates with an 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Wing Ding festival today and Sunday. Activities include tours, music, dance, crafts, hands-on activities, puppets and storytelling.
Schedule of activities
Taft Museum: Closed for renovation, but when it reopens in January, admission will be $7 for general admission, $5 for seniors and free under 18. There probably will be two days a week with free admission.

Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal: $6.75 for adults, $4.75 for children for one attraction, with combination discounts available for admission to the three other permanent attractions.

Contemporary Arts Center: $6.50 for general admission, $5.50 for seniors, $4.50 for students, $3.50 for children 3 to 13.

Columbus Museum of Art: $6 for general admission, $4 for seniors and children 6 and older; free every Thursday.

Indianapolis Museum of Arts: Free.

Speed Museum (Louisville): Free.

Dayton Art Institute: Free.

The 18,000-square-foot undertaking is unusual in that most museums don't have full wings dedicated to local artists. It's filled with more than 400 objects, including works by Cincinnati painters Frank Duveneck, Henry Farny and Robert Duncanson, sculptor Hiram Powers, woodcarver Benn Pittman and Maria Longworth Nichols Storer's Rookwood pottery.

The freebie policy is made possible by a $2.15 million gift from Cincinnati philanthropists and longtime arts supporters Lois and Richard Rosenthal, who made the gift in the hope it would increase attendance and encourage more diversity in age, race and geography.

The policy makes Cincinnati unique in tough economic times, says deputy museum director Stephen Bonadies. "Considering the economy right now, with tight budgets and endowments paying less because of the downturned stock market, many museums are cutting back on programs or raising admission prices, not dropping them."

Bonadies is confident the Wing and free admission will boost attendance and diversity: "This policy is based on the experience of two summers when we did go free - the summer of the Big Pig Gig and then again last summer. And what we noticed was more people and more diversity both times.

"We fully expect that trend to continue when we drop general admission charges."

That was the experience of the Dayton Art Institute. "We dropped general admission in 1994," says communications manager Kim Patton. "In '93, our attendance was 179,000. In '94 it jumped to 245,000. Right now, it stands at 300,000 a year."

Cincinnati Art Museum had been charging $5 admission, but it was free on Saturdays, and children under 18 and museum members were admitted free. It attracts about 250,000 visitors a year, but Bonadies has no way of knowing what percentage came because of the summer's free admission policy.

Cincinnati is not the first museum to drop general admission. Museums in Indianapolis, Cleveland, St. Louis, Minneapolis, Kansas and Louisville all have longstanding free admission policies. New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art is free with a "suggested donation" box at the entrance.

Bonadies knows what free admission has accomplished in other cities: "The Minneapolis Institute of Art went free in the early '90s and saw a significant jump in attendance and diversity."

A very significant jump, says Minneapolis' director Evan Maurer. "We went free in 1989. At that time, we were attracting about 220,000 visitors a year. Last year we did 550,000.

"What we found is that free admission helps us raise more money, increase memberships (from 12,000 in '89 to 32,000 today) and attract more gifts. The only way I can explain it is that people like it that we're free, and they want to help us stay that way."

Minneapolis also believed it was seeing an increase in the diversity of visitors but couldn't document it. With the help of a grant, it launched a 1995 demographics study that found Native Americans, Asian Americans and Hispanic Americans were visiting the museum in proportions that reflected their percentage of the population. Only African-Americans, 3.1 percent of the seven-county area the museum serves, were found to be underserved, making up only 1 percent of the museum's visitor base.

"I think the study showed that we have been successful in serving a diverse audience," Maurer says.

Bonadies is hoping for the same response here: "Free admission fulfills an important objective in our long-range plan, and that's better access for the entire community."

Access is the key, says Nannette Maciejunes, acting executive director of the Columbus Museum of Art. "I think one of the things museums struggle with is an image of elitism, that they're only for the rich. That's tragic, because museums should be like libraries - places for everyone to discover the great works of the world."

Minneapolis' Maurer loves telling a story to illustrate what he means by access: He was standing in the museum lobby and noticed two teenaged boys who had been playing basketball across the street. It was a hot summer day, and they came into the museum to cool off. They took a look around, then checked their basketball and spent two hours going through galleries.

"We want that to happen here," Bonadies said. "Just as we want to position the Cincinnati Art Museum as Cincinnati's - apostrophe 'S' - art museum. To do that that, we want to appeal to a broad spectrum that reflects the entire community."

Maciejunes thinks free admission will do that. "Museums that charge do it because they have to, but we also recognize that cost can be a barrier. Any barrier you can remove is a positive step. Museums hold their collections in trust for the citizens, and anything that allows the citizens, all citizens, to participate in that trust accomplishes our mission."

Joyce Lorenz, marketing manager of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, agrees that free admission will probably increase attendance and diversity: "We have been free forever, so I can't document it in our museum, but my feeling is that it will. We don't advertise or promote our free admission, but I think if we did, we would see significant increases."

Bonadies is unwilling to project actual figures. "The policy is too new for us to project numbers. Over the course of the next several months, we'll chart attendance and then extrapolate for the year. I will say that I fully expect our numbers to jump significantly."

The museum takes in about $100,000 a year in admission fees. The Rosenthal gift, in the form of an endowment, will offset that loss.

The gift grew out of a series of conversations between him and Lois, Dick Rosenthal says. "We had been talking for three years or so before we did it, and we both felt it would be an uplifting, positive, stick-out-your chest thing for Cincinnati.

"We approached the museum, and they embraced it rather quickly.

"But here's what's been exciting to me and Lois. After it was announced, we got a couple dozen thank-you letters at home, apparently from people of modest means. About half of them said they had experiences there that impacted their lives in some way, and now they can do the same for their families.

"It showed us that an admission charge, even a modest one, really is a barrier to some families. We're thrilled to see those barriers fall."


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