Should Museums Be Free?: The Getty's Director Says Yes (VIDEO)

Should Museums Be Free?

Could museums be free?

The innocent enough question came from an audience member at the recent Zócalo panel in Los Angeles on Friday. Three prominent L.A. museum directors -- Timothy Potts from The Getty, Ann Philbin from UCLA's Hammer Museum, and Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA)'s Michael Govan -- were discussing the "hopes and challenges of the Los Angeles art museum of tomorrow," when the moderator, Los Angeles Times arts reporter Jori Finkel, opened the floor to questions.

The Getty was offered as a shining example. The museum, which draws approximately 1.3 million visitors annually, offers free admission to every entrant. It's also one of the nation's more popular museums. Is its admissions policy part of the reason why?

Absolutely, said Potts, Getty's director as of a week ago. "In my mind there's no question that even a relatively small entry charge is a major hurdle for many people. The ones you most want to come, for whom that $6 is really quite a significant amount, they're the ones you lose. The people who can afford to collect, have an art history degree, go to museums around the world -- they can still afford it, they can still come. It's the people who haven't had all those benefits, but you really want to open their eyes to what an art museum represents, and they're the ones you lose by charging even a relatively small amount."

Philbin, director of the Hammer, said the museum would "love" to make its wide-ranging collection free to the public, but won't. The persuasiveness of Philbin's reasoning for why -- that a fee actually makes an experience feel more special -- may depend on which side of the transaction you're on.

Govan's cost-benefit analysis was clearer. 'We have some county money,' he said. But removing LACMA's $10 to $15 fee "would severely limit the kinds and numbers of programs we could offer, because our budgets would be smaller. When people are paying, and it's less than a movie ticket, they are actually contributing to a museum that serves a lot of people."

Click here for footage from the panel (the conversation about entrance fees starts approximately 55 minutes in).

This past year has proven a banner year for another form of museum admission. Visitors to the donation-only Metropolitan Museum of Art streamed in by the tune of 600,000 more this year than last. Totaling at 6.3 million, the new crowd level so impressed Met higher-ups, they've announced the museum will finally revert to a seven-day operating schedule for the first time in 40 years, opening on Mondays starting next summer, to capitalize on the money to be made.

All things considered, what do you think readers? Are museums doing just fine the way they are, or should they think about a one-size fits all policy -- that one size being, "free"?

[via LA Times]

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