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Take your pick: recent admission fee increases at major museums in New York and elsewhere are the result of either basic economics or poor decision-making. What is clear is that the increase to $30 for general adult admission last year at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and this year at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA) and, most recently, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).

In the case of MoMA, the latest to increase its ticket prices—a change that will go into effect on 16 October—the price of general admission is rising by 20%, from $25 to $30. It is the first increase to its entry fees in more than a decade; during that time, the museum completed a major, $450m expansion and the Covid-19 pandemic drastically reduced its visitor numbers—and admission revenue. In a statement to The New York Times, the museum’s director Glenn D. Lowry simply said: “These changes in admission price will help the museum maintain financial stability.”

The move to higher entry fees at MoMA and elsewhere may be a harbinger of similar price hikes to come at other major art museums where the current going rate is in the $22 to $27 range.

On the economics side, art museums have faced inflationary pressures, most notably higher utility rates and more costly building materials, as well as unionisation of staff at many institutions that has forced leaders to raise salaries and benefits. At the same time, private and governmental support for cultural institutions has not risen sufficiently to enable them to weather these increases. Added to this is a decline in visitors at many museums, impacting box-office revenues. “Chinese tourism, which brought a lot of visitors to New York museums, hasn’t rebounded since the pandemic,” says András Szántó, a museum consultant in New York City and author of Imagining the Future Museum.

On the brighter side, John Silvia, the former chief economist at Wells Fargo and founder of Dynamic Economic Analysis in Charlotte, North Carolina, says that “over the last six months, real household income is up and consumer sentiment has also improved. There are more than a million more jobs than a year ago.” In other words, it may be more expensive to visit museums, but many visitors can afford it. Higher admission fees reflect both “stronger demand from consumers and higher costs of museum workers and maintenance”, Silvia says.

The trend is likely to continue, according to the Seattle-based museum consultant Susie Wilkening, who adds that there has been no significant push-back to the recent or past admissions price increases. “Museums, for the most part, are lower in cost than many other outings,” she says, such as attending a professional sports match or Broadway show, “and so many people still consider museum-going a cost-effective way to have a high-quality experience on a budget.”

“People are showing price tolerance” to the cost of visiting a museum, Szántó says. “Leading New York City museums are tourist-driven. For once-in-a-lifetime visitors to New York, they already have spent a considerable amount of money just to travel to and stay in the city, so a $30 ticket to get into a museum probably won’t be a barrier.” Cities that are less reliant on tourism, where visitors to museums are mostly from the region, he adds, may be less likely to raise their admissions prices.

Budgetary pressures have led to admissions price hikes in other ways, says David Ross, a former director of both the Whitney and SFMoMA, and currently head of the MFA programme in fine art practice at New York’s School of Visual Arts. “Many museum board members come from the business world, and they look to have museums run in the same way as corporations. Trustees expect museums to meet their numbers. I was often called up on a weekend by trustees wanting to know: ‘How was your take over the weekend?’ It’s more like show business.”

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While cost considerations move museums in one direction, policy issues have shifted other institutions the other way, lowering or getting rid of admission fees altogether, the most recent being the Wichita Art Museum in Kansas, which dropped entry charges for all of 2023 through an initiative paid for by a local real estate broker. In 2021, the Orange County Museum of Art in Costa Mesa, California dropped its admissions charges for ten years as a result of a $2.5m gift from Lugano Diamonds, a Newport Beach-based jeweller. Two years earlier, Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (Moca) board president Carolyn Powers made a $10m gift to the institution, allowing it to be free to the public. According to a Moca spokesperson, Powers “has been interested in culture’s ability to transform lives” and did not want the price of admissions to limit that potential. Also in 2019, the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland did away with admission fees to remove “the economic barrier to visitation”, Jill Snyder, the museum’s former executive director, said at the time.

Museum officials speak regularly about the need to broaden their audience, particularly to underserved communities, while also seeking to limit long-term structural deficits—a difficult balance to achieve. At what point, wonders Charmaine Jefferson, a former deputy commissioner of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs and currently a museum consultant in Los Angeles, “does the audience say ‘Enough already’” to admissions price increases?

That time may not yet have arrived—or perhaps it has and museum officials haven’t noticed. “Museums need to be values-driven, not spreadsheet-driven,” says Gary Vikan, the former director of the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore, which, along with the Baltimore Museum of Art, eliminated admissions fees in 2006. The principal values, he says, are encouraging visitors to experience the objects on display, which high admissions prices might keep out of reach. Overall museum visitation nationwide has been declining, he says, and the trend is no longer attributable to the pandemic. “Raising fees accelerates that declining attendance, leading museum officials to conclude that they need to raise admissions fees even more.”

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