In 2007, Gypsy McFelter asks in Museum News magazine (the American Association of Museums publication now known as Museum), “Is there a middle ground between free admission and a standard entrance fee [to museums]?”
The article focuses on art museums and their admissions policies, along with the opinions of museum professionals on the idea of free admission. Though museums cannot sustain themselves without money, charging an entrance fee puts a limit on who can access the museum and all it hopes to offer. McFelter writes that museums often balance the two needs through limited free admission:
Ultimately, offering designated times for free admission has become the most common method for museums to welcome first-time and lower-income visitors. This option is the most commonly found equilibrium between the competing priorities of ideology, practicality and economics. By designating periods of free admission to attract the infrequent visitor, museums can more easily justify charging an entrance fee on a regular basis. Based on figures from 2006 Museum Financial Information, more than two-thirds of museums across all disciplines currently offer a free admission day[.]
Two museums I visited during their free hours were the International Spy Museum and the Corcoran Gallery of Art, both in DC. Spy, a for-profit museum, holds a monthly free Community Night with the mission “to spread goodwill and reach underserved communities.” These events have themes like fitness and foster care month. I visited in October 2010, when the Community Night was Halloween-themed, and visitors were invited to wear costumes. (I must confess that I wore regular clothes.) The museum was crowded, particularly with costumed young people. Despite the crowds, I was able to see virtually everything in the museum, from the spies of antiquity to modern cryptography. The most memorable lesson I learned that night is that I would be a terrible, terrible spy.
During the summer of 2009, the Corcoran opened its doors for free every Saturday, thanks to a grant from the Cafritz Foundation. (The free summer Saturdays have continued every year since, now due to support from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities.) When I visited, the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange danced their way through the museum, performing site-specific pieces that interpreted the surrounding art. Visitors were given a schedule of when the dancers would be in certain galleries, and we audience members could choose to gather wherever the company was performing at the time. It was definitely a unique museum visit for me – rarely, if ever, have I seen interpretive dance in art museums. On this day, visitors were given not only free access to visual art but also a free dance concert.
In McFelter’s survey of western art museums, all but one “was in favor of some sort of limited free admission as a form of community service.” The dissenter responded, “[Our museum] clearly has no value when we give it away for free.”
I do not agree at all that free museums have no value. I live in DC, full of free museums, and these museums are far from without value. There is certainly value in the (often priceless) artifacts that museums offer for viewing and learning about. But museums also make themselves valuable institutions in their communities when they strive to be accessible to people of all economic classes.
To look up which museums have an upcoming free admission day, go to the Museum Free Days website. The website has information for several cities, though not DC (perhaps since so many of our museums are already free).