Culture Has Its Price...

This morning I read an article in the Tribune about the impending opening of the new Modern Wing at the Art Institute, and it really rankled my feathers. In it, the author touts the new addition as a hopeful sign “that temporary economic conditions can't thwart Chicago's ambition and commitment to its cultural life.” He paints a picture of the museum’s directors as brave souls who pursued their vision in the face of tremendous economic hardship. The truth is, as the author acknowledges in the article, the project began back in 1999. By the time the economy started to tank last year, the Art Institute was too far into the project to scuttle the new wing – it was already near completion. It simply would not have made economic sense to leave the new building empty.

More irksome, however, is the incessant negative attention that the Art Institute is receiving for its decision to raise its admission price from $12 to $18. Today’s article does a good job of pointing out that the new price is a flat fee, inclusive of special exhibit admission and coat check services. At the $12 price point, admission to special exhibitions cost an extra $8. Plus, the Art Institute offers free admission to children under the age of 12, and they join the Chicago History Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art in offering regularly scheduled free admission days (even if theirs is limited to a few hours).

On the other hand, many of Chicago’s most prestigious cultural institutions, including the Field Museum, the Shedd Aquarium, and the Museum of Science and Industry schedule their free days seemingly at random, which has the effect of minimizing the number of visitors who can take advantage of them. Furthermore, all of these institutions have entrance fees that eclipse that of the Art Institute:

  • Basic admission to the Field Museum is $15, but to see just one special exhibit is $23. Seeing both special exhibits sets you back a whopping $29.
  • The Shedd Aquarium comes in at $17.95, a mere five cents cheaper than the proposed price of admission at the Art Institute, but the Shedd also charges $13.95 for children between the ages of 3 and 11 – a major segment of their audience.
  • The basic admission at the Museum of Science and Industry costs $13, but to see an Omnimax movie the cost bumps up to $20. If you want to see the new Harry Potter exhibit that’s about to open, you’ll have to shell out $26, and should you want to see the special exhibit and an Omnimax movie, get ready to pay $33!

Outside of Chicago, comparable museums are charging similar prices:

  • It costs $20 to get into the door at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
  • The Guggenheim in New York costs $18.
  • The Metropolitan Museum of Art requests a “suggested donation” of $20.
  • Atlanta’s High Museum of Art charges a flat fee of $18, just like the Art Institute.

Vice President Biden is in town today as the keynote speaker at the Global Town Forum at UIC. If Chicago is indeed a “global city,” and the Art Institute a world-class museum, then why all the public outrage over its price of admission? I have no love for Adam Smith, but in this case, I say, let the market decide. If the Art Institute is going to compete nationally for tourist dollars, then let it charge the same prices that the market is supporting elsewhere. Admission numbers don’t lie; if the cost of entry is too high, visitors will let the Art Institute know by staying home.

Click here for a great article on the fiscal situation at Chicago museums published in the Chicago Reader this January. The information is a little out of date by now, but it’s still a good read if you are interested in the state of our cultural institutions.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the invite. Glad to see you join the blogging world. Looking forward to a break from toddler and babyhood. Keep up the stories, and mail me some of those cookies...would ya?