Visual Arts » Public

A Fee Too Far?

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"Elitist. Absurd. A disgrace."

And those were some of the nicer comments.

The Indianapolis Museum of Art recently ignited a conflagration of criticism on social media and local media comment sections when it announced it would starting charging $18 admission in April, the first time it hasn't been free in the modern era since a short-lived $7 fee in 2007. They saw the backlash coming. The IMA hired leading crisis management firm Borshoff to announce the news. But the spin of a "new campus enhancement plan to improve visitor experience" was instantly drowned out in the din of critics who said the move would restrict access, was a transparent bid to sell more memberships, and amounted to a "slap in the face to the people of Indianapolis," as one Facebook commenter put it. The IMA's intention to generate revenue to prevent having to spend down so much of its endowment was ignored by angry naysayers.

Not to defend a fee the Internet so clearly hates, but sometimes in life we feel a strong visceral reaction and some perspective helps.

"Boo! Wow. Gulp. Ouch! Sad. Dumb. Damn, Really? Noooo. Wut! That's BS."

-Various Twitter commenters

While an IndyCar-like acceleration from $0 to $18 is undeniably shocking for most people, the new admission price isn't uncommonly high for art museums in big cities and is, in fact, less than what you would pay in Atlanta or Philadelphia. Indy is after all the second most populous city in the Midwest, after Chicago.

The Art Institute of Chicago costs $23 for adults, and $20 for Illinois residents, and $18 for Chicago denizens. The Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art just charged $25 for admission during its "David Bowie Is" exhibit. Parking by either could easily run another $30. That's a lot of money.

In 2009, the IMA won the National Medal for Museum and Library Service, in part for its free admission policy. - WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
  • Wikimedia Commons
  • In 2009, the IMA won the National Medal for Museum and Library Service, in part for its free admission policy.

Other museums in Chicago are even costlier: Getting into the Field Museum can cost up to $31 if you want to see certain exhibits, and the Museum of Science and Industry can run as much as $36. So it could be worse. An $18 fee is not great, but it's not out of the realm of all that is decent and comprehensible in 2015.

"Wealthy patrons will continue support but the average Joe will not even consider  it, so I think you have just shot yourself in the foot. We are not New York or Philly."

- IndyStar.com commenter

Maybe not, but we're not Schenectady or King of Prussia either. The new fee is not out of line with other top-tier Indy attractions. In fact, it's cheaper. The Children's Museum of Indianapolis runs $19.50 for adults, and a Total Adventure Package at the Indianapolis Zoo can reach up to $26.50 now that it's using dynamic pricing where it costs more if demand is high and less when few show up. Swing by the zoo when the weather's nice and see if higher prices have thinned out the stroller-pushing herds. The fee hike may be especially hard to swallow if you picnicked on the IMA grounds during your lunch break or often ducked in an hour before closing time, but it's comparable to what you'd already pay elsewhere in town.

"Wow Indy peeps -- gone are the days of art for the people," Tweeted a Twitter commenter.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art, pictured here, charges each visitor $20. - WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
  • Wikimedia Commons
  • The Philadelphia Museum of Art, pictured here, charges each visitor $20.

These days, a lot of museums can leave visitors with sticker shock. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City asks for a suggested donation of $25, and NYC's Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston both straight-up charge $25 to get in, suggestions be damned. It sounds like a lot, but you might drop more cash in an hour or two at a restaurant or bar, and you can spend an entire day at an art museum. The Seattle Art Museum charges adults $19.50, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art $18, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art $25 for general admission plus special exhibitions, for which the IMA will no longer charge. The Cheekwood Botanical Garden and Museum of Art in Nashville charges $17 for adult admission and parking, for which the IMA also will be dropping the fees completely.

"Shielding the arts from kids and teens behind a very steep entrance fee is not right. We should be making the arts more accessible to the people of Indianapolis and Indiana in general, not moving backward."

- Facebook comment

Again, an $18 fee sounds steep, but may, in fact, be less than what you're already paying every time you visit the IMA if you already know the permanent collection pretty well and just drop by when a major exhibit is in town, maybe using the opportunity to catch up on all the other new exhibits scattered in smaller galleries throughout the building. The latest high-profile special exhibit, "Georgia O'Keeffe and the Southwestern Still Life," costs $20 for adults and $12 for kids, while parking tacks another $5 onto the bill. The tab for a family of three adds up to $57, while the same experience would only run $46 under the new fee structure. Even after the price hike, seeing a special exhibit at the IMA will be cheaper than at other large museums. The "Monet at the Seine: Impressions at the River" exhibit at The Museum of Fine Arts of Houston will set you back $23. Upcoming IMA exhibitions like "Dream Cars: Innovative Design, Visionary Ideas" will only be $18 unless you are a member or go often enough to buy a $55 membership or $75 family membership, the prices of which won't change.

Admission will be free for children 5 and younger, and $10 for kids 6-17. Students at any public or charter school in Marion County can still go on field trips to the IMA for free. Any students attending any public, non-profit or 4-year colleges in Marion County - such as IUPUI, Ivy Tech, Butler, Marian and the University of Indianapolis -- also can get in for free, as can anyone of any age or educational level from 4 to 9 p.m. on the first Thursday of every month.

"If they are jumping the price that much, clearly they do not care about the poor and middle class."

- Facebook comment

Many voiced concerns on social media about whether the poor would be walled off from the art and gardens, and if the IMA was effectively pricing out many residents who live in surrounding neighborhoods. But the museum has joined the statewide Access Pass program to be more accessible. Under the program, museums such as Conner Prairie, the Terre Haute Children's Museum and Wonderlab in Bloomington let qualifying needy families, such as those that receive food stamps or Hoosier Healthwise insurance, in for $1 per family member per visit.

"Ridiculously high. Admission prices should be in line with other Midwest art museums. Admission is free at the St. Louis Art Museum (which is a larger museum and a far superior one in my opinion) with even free admission to special exhibits on Fridays; admission is free at the Cincinnati Art Museum (admission to special exhibits varies); admission is free at the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts (admission to special exhibits varies). I have always found free, available parking at all three museums," said a commenter on the WISH-TV website.

Chicago's Field Museum charges adults $18 a ticket. - WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
  • Wikimedia Commons
  • Chicago's Field Museum charges adults $18 a ticket.

Unlike Lucas Oil Stadium or Bankers Life Fieldhouse, the IMA doesn't get hefty taxpayer subsidies. Less than 1 percent of its budget comes from the government. The St. Louis Art Museum, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Baltimore Museum of Art, among others, all get or have gotten significant support from taxpayers. They are free at least to local residents only in the sense that libraries are -- they're free when you use them, but they're bankrolled by tax dollars. A charitable foundation gave a large sum to the Cincinnati Art Museum on the condition that it remain free to all forever, and the Cleveland Museum of Art has a $600 million endowment, way more than the IMA's $360 million. Yes, the IMA is sitting on a huge pile of money, but it's drawn down as much as 8 percent a year and savings can't be spent on operating expenses forever no matter who you are.

"Prepare to see the attendance of the museum completely disappear. I will never set foot in there for that price," said another Indy Star commenter.

In 2006, the Art Institute of Chicago went from asking for a recommended donation of $12 to making it a mandatory fee. Today, it costs nearly twice as much to get in, and a line still snakes down Michigan Avenue on weekend mornings.

Ultimately you're still probably going to go to the IMA, and so will most everyone else. For some, the outrage might take a while to subside. But it's not realistic to drive to St. Louis or Cincinnati every time you want to see world-class art, as some on social media have claimed they will. Besides, even with current low fuel prices, you'd just end up spending more on gas money that way. For the price of an enchilada platter and a margarita, you can see art that will stir your imagination and stimulate your mind, work by Rembrandt and Cindy Sherman and Paul Gauguin and Georgia O'Keeffe and Edward Hopper and more. Plus you can support the arts in your community.

Absolutely everything would be better if it were free, there's no question about it. But like all of us, even the most well-endowed art museums have bills to pay.

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