- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 10, 2006

Fans will shell out upward of $800 apiece for tickets to Barbra Streisand’s upcoming concert tour. But ask people to spend $20 to see one of the world’s greatest collections of visual art, and an uproar ensues.

Two New York art museums made headlines this summer when they announced plans to change admission fees.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s admission rose from $15 to $20 at the beginning of this month. The new fee — which is voluntary, although the museum doesn’t much advertise the fact — brings the gallery in line with New York’s other major museum, the Museum of Modern Art. It sparked controversy when it raised admission from $12 two years ago.

Another New York museum scrapped its plan to charge $50 after angry art lovers complained. Neue Galerie is exhibiting five paintings by Austrian symbolist Gustav Klimt. One, a 1907 gold-encrusted portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, was purchased by Neue founder and cosmetics baron Ronald Lauder for $135 million, making it the most expensive painting ever sold.

Neue admission is a reasonable $15. But because of high demand, the gallery decided to allow people to attend the less-crowded, members-only Wednesdays if they ponied up $50. The museum withdrew the opportunity after the outcry.

These are just two examples of a growing controversy. Some museums are raising admission fees while others are eliminating them entirely. Increasingly, these museum decisions about pricing are being framed — and criticized — in terms of moral choice.

It’s a debate that is taking place in almost no other art industry — not music, not dance, not theater.

As Met director Philippe de Montebello wondered a few years ago in a roundtable discussion at Harvard University, “What is [it] about art that it shouldn’t be paid for?”

People of all ages and classes freely fork over big bucks to see their favorite musicians and sports stars. No one suggests the art of, say, the Broadway musical must be free. Concert and film tickets go up in price every year, but no one worries these arts are becoming broadly inaccessible. Raise prices at an art museum, however, and a public outcry is guaranteed.

Gary Vikan, director of Baltimore’s Walters Art Museum, thinks an analogy between painting and music is flawed. “It’s wrong in my mind to equate us with rock concerts and musicals,” he argues. “We’re like libraries. We’re the place where people come together and community is made.”

Libraries seem to be facing extinction these days, however. Books are available cheaply through online retailers like Amazon, and sometimes used copies can be bought for next to nothing on the Internet. “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” can be had for 94 cents plus shipping, for example. The market forces so many arts administrators decry have done a good job of making literature easily available to the masses.

Mr. Vikan argues that putting art on the market actually changes the way it’s seen. Of the Neue Museum he says, “I’ve got visions of King Kong. Charge what the market will bear so people can come and gawk at it.”

I saw the expensive Klimt portrait at no charge in June (I had no idea it would soon sell for a record-breaking price) when the exhibition was at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; LACMA is free after 5 p.m., with a sponsorship from retailer Target. (Most museums have such free periods.)

Later that night, I paid $37 to attend a preview of the museum’s new exhibition, “David Hockney Portraits.” Attendance was limited at the sold-out event, which included fancy cocktails and a DJ spinning tunes.

There was certainly an aura of being one of a select few. But this feeling complemented the spirit of Mr. Hockney’s work. Many of his subjects are celebrities, some famous for their own work, like Andy Warhol, and some made more famous through Mr. Hockney’s work, like Celia Birtwell. What better way to be immersed in these surprisingly varied portraits than while sipping a martini in the heat of Los Angeles?

In this sense, is Neue’s $50 offer any different than the VIP concert packages available to people who want to add backstage access or private receptions to their musical experience?

Both major Baltimore museums — the Walters and the Baltimore Museum of Art — will eliminate their $10 admission charges on Oct. 1. They made the decision after seeing the change in attendance on free days.

“The building is very vibrant with people moving around,” reports Doreen Bolger, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art. “The diversity of the audience more than doubles. And attendance overall triples.”

Most of these people could probably afford to pay something to attend — say, $1. Many District museums charge no admission. A few months ago, Rep. James Moran, Democrat of Virginia, suggested a nominal admission of $1 for the Smithsonian museums. Washingtonians voiced their displeasure.

Smithsonian spokesperson Becky Haberacker says the museum was also opposed. “We really feel that by the Smithsonian being free, it allows us to have the widest possible audience to see all the objects the Smithsonian has,” she says.

The heavily subsidized Smithsonian isn’t really free, of course. Taxpayers across the country footed the bill for 70 percent ($620 million) of its fiscal year 2006 budget. The Baltimore museums also receive government funding; they were able to eliminate admission fees because of an $800,000 grant received from the city and county.

Free admission via government funding is really just a transfer of wealth, largely from middle-class taxpayers to the affluent patrons of fine art museums.

Museums cost money to operate; they must find funds somewhere. Whether admission fees should be part of the equation is a much more complicated question than it first appears once you realize that “free” admission comes with a hidden price.

But is forcing everyone to pay the answer?

Many museums are able to open their doors for free through voluntary sponsorships. Besides its partnership with LACMA, for example, Target sponsors free admission periods at many other museums around the country, including that expensive Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Most of the great museums of the world were founded through philanthropy. Why shouldn’t they continue to be run that way?

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