Art tourism – should art galleries charge entrance fees?

Art galleries and museums are expensive businesses. At the top end, the Metropolitan Museum’s operating expenses in 2016 were about $NZ450m. By comparison, New Zealand's national museum, Te Papa Tongarewa’s operating costs for the 2017 financial year were $64.2m.

With costs like these, should art galleries and museums give free entry to tourists?

There is a good case for allowing free entry if the facilities generate more money in tourist revenues than they cost to maintain but in most cases proving this is impossible.

If museums and art galleries don’t generate as much money from tourism as they cost to maintain, the case for subsidies has difficulties. In a city like Auckland it can sensibly be argued that fixing the traffic gridlock is more important than using the available funds to pay overseas tourists to visit the local art gallery for free. 

There is an international trend to charge entrance fees to overseas or out-of-state visitors and Auckland is a recent example of this. The council has cut its funding for its art gallery which now charges overseas visitors an entrance fee of $20.

In the US, it is almost standard for the major art galleries to charge an entrance fee of $US25 ($NZ36) to overseas visitors. I refer for example to such places as New York's Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum and the Whitney Museum AmericanArt plus the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

The fact that cultural institutions in the US tend to charge entrance fees does not deter an interest in culture. It is estimated that museums and historical sites there will generate more than $US15b in revenue this year. 

It isn’t just the major art galleries that charge these fees. It’s art galleries and museums in most countries. Even such fringe museums as the Icelandic Phallological Museum in Reykjavik (which displays penises) and the Museum of Prostitution in Amsterdam charge entrance fees of more than $NZ20.

England is an exception. In 2001 the Labour government introduced a policy of free admission for national museums and galleries. With the huge number of tourists who are drawn to England for its art galleries and museums, there was some logic in this.

In 2008 France experimented with free admission for museums and galleries but the experiment only lasted about six months.

Entrance fees will inevitably deter patronage but the situation is not straightforward. For example, when MOMA increased its entrance fee by $US5 it had no effect on visitor numbers. Elsewhere, an increase in fees led to a reduction in visitation but this was the result of repeat visitors making fewer visits.

The case for free entry to cultural institutions is not only weakened by the unfairness of making ratepayers pay tourists to visit loss-making places that many of the ratepayers don’t want to see but there is a fundamental unfairness about subsidising some forms of artistic expression and not others. Why, for example, should art galleries, ballet, and symphony orchestras be subsidised and not other forms of art?

The charging of fees may have a second benefit – raising the quality of art displays.

Take the current exhibition at the Auckland Art Gallery, Manifesto. Some 13 films are screened simultaneously on large screens, producing a raucous cacophony of conflicting soundtracks.

If you can focus among all this noise, you will hear on screen 11 that the famed American sculptor, Claes Oldenburg, said such things as these about art:

I am for art which is abandoned like a piece of shit.

I am for all art that is as stupid as life itself.

I am for art you can pick your nose with.

I am for the majestic art of dog turds, rising like cathedrals.”

I suspect most ratepayers and overseas visitors would regard it as an insult that they should be required to pay for stuff like this. 

It is reasonable to suppose that the luxury of subsidies has caused some art galleries to turn good people against art and that these people have forfeited the enrichment of life that art can produce.

If art galleries are required to recover even a small amount of their operating expenses by visitor fees, the result should be an increase in the quality of exhibitions, and that ought not to be bad for both domestic and international tourism.

Disclaimer: Anthony Grant, a barrister, owns Sculptureum, an art attraction in Auckland. 

This is supplied content and not commissioned or paid for by NBR.

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