Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on Omaha.com
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By Carol Bicak
WORLD-HERALD STAFF WRITER
Beginning May 25, Memorial Day weekend, the Joslyn Art Museum will no longer charge general admission.
The Omaha-based Sherwood Foundation, headed by chairwoman Susie Buffett, gave the Joslyn a grant for an undisclosed amount to make up for the loss of revenue from admission for the next three years. Museum officials said they made the move to draw more people and make art accessible to everyone in the city.
For the rest of this year, the museum will not charge for special traveling exhibits, but it will in 2014. When the three-year grant expires, the Joslyn will determine how to make up admission fee revenues.
The museum will continue to sell memberships that offer special perks. Joslyn director Jack Becker said he thinks the museum may see a short-term loss in membership sales, but he isn’t overly worried about the long term.
A recent survey at Joslyn found that 65 percent of members joined because they support the museum. Becker also cited the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, where memberships declined slightly the first year or two that admission was free, but now memberships there have nearly doubled.
Free admission has been a goal for Becker since he became Joslyn’s executive director and CEO in 2010.
“He brought his vision to me when he first started,” said Kristin Williams, director of community initiatives at the Sherwood Foundation. “It was a vision we could share.”
Becker saw other museums successfully make the transition — notably the Nelson Atkins in Kansas City in 2001, the Baltimore Museum of Art in 2006, the Indianapolis Museum of Art in 2007 and the Bronx Museum of the Arts last year. Most recently, the Dallas Museum of Art went free in January. Lincoln’s Sheldon Museum of Artand the Des Moines Art Center also are free.
In fact, more than a third of America’s art museums have committed to making their collections available to the public at no cost, Becker said.
Going to free admission is “fantastic for the community, for the state,” said Christine Anagnos, executive director of the Association of Museum Directors in New York City. “Museums are trending that way: St. Louis, Minneapolis, Baltimore. … They’re looking for new ways for reaching more segments of the community, donors as well as the general public.”
Becker said he has had ongoing conversations with people in the community: “I heard that cry: free admission.”
Free admission isn’t really new for Omaha’s art museum. When Sarah Joslyn opened the museum named for her late husband in 1931, she intended it to be a place of free art for everyone to enjoy.
It stayed free until 1965, when the board instituted a 25-cent admission charge. It has grown over time to $8.
“She gave Joslyn Art Museum to Omaha for the purpose of serving the entire community as an educational and cultural resource,” Becker said.
Last year’s attendance at Joslyn was 142,612, up about 25 percent over 2011. That ranked Joslyn behind the Durham Museum, where attendance for 2012 was 187,844, andLauritzen Gardens, which had 169,534 visitors.
The museum is counting on the free admission to bring more people from more parts of the city through Joslyn’s doors.
“It’s all about accessibility for our constituents and the importance of the arts for the community,” Becker said.
The free general admission includes all regular visits to the museum’s permanent collection galleries, public spaces, cafe and gift shop; self-guided, docent-guided and school tours; parking; Wi-Fi throughout the museum; events such as Family Day; and some lectures.
Admission money usually makes up only 2 to 4 percent of an art museum’s annual revenue, Becker said, although he pointed out that it’s different for large museums that rely on tourist dollars for a larger part of their budgets. Try $25 for an adult at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York or the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. It’s $23 at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Last year, admission fees accounted for 3.5 percent of Joslyn’s total revenue of $5,497,596.
“While lost admission revenue is certainly not an insignificant issue, it is not insurmountable,” Becker said.
Both Becker and the Sherwood Foundation are sure the museum can make up the lost revenue in other ways once the grant is gone.
Membership fees, meanwhile, will remain $45 individual and $60 family/dual, with discounts for seniors, students, educators and military families. And membership will still have its perks.
Major exhibitions that require tickets next year will be free to members. Memberships also will include discounts for guests of members; members-only weekends and select days of the year; deeper discounts on fee-based events and programs, classes and camps, the museum shop and the cafe; invitations to special member-appreciation events; and a subscription to the Joslyn Now magazine.
The Nelson Atkins Museum of Art has seen its attendance and memberships grow in the 12 years it has had free admission.
“To be honest,” said Kathleen Leighton, media relations officer at the museum, “that’s mostly due to events we hold here. … We’ve made a real effort to get people involved in the museum.”
She agrees with Becker on the goal of free art.
“Free admission speaks to our foundation. Our mission since we opened was to have art accessible to all, regardless of socioeconomic means. It’s something we’re really proud of, and it’s something Omaha will be proud of.”
Joslyn has some big exhibitions yet this year, including “Renoir to Chagall: Paris and the Allure of Color,” opening June 8, and “Legacy: The Emily Fisher Landau Collection” from the Whitney Museum of American Art, opening Sept. 28. They will be free.
In 2014, adults will be charged $10 for the February show “Poseidon and the Sea: Myth, Cult and Daily Life.” Children 17 and younger will be free.
Museum and Sherwood officials also said the move may well spark an increase in philanthropic donations. That seems to be the norm for art museums that do away with admission prices, said the foundation’s Williams.
Tyler Green, an arts writer and editor who runs the Modern Arts Notes blog, said that was the case in Baltimore.
Anticipation of increased donations was one of the reasons the foundation felt it could make the three-year commitment to the museum, Williams said. The other was the “equity and access” for an underserved part of the community — or Sarah Joslyn’s vision of art for everyone.
“It’s important to us that free admission be an embedded part of the Joslyn culture, that in another 40 years it will still be free,” Williams said.
Contact the writer: 402-444-1067, firstname.lastname@example.org
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NEED TO KNOW INFORMATION:
Joslyn Art Museum
2200 Dodge St.
• Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
• Thursday, 10 a.m.-8 p.m.
• Sunday, noon-4 p.m.
• Closed Mondays and New Year’s Day; Memorial Day; Independence Day; Labor Day; Thanksgiving Day; and Christmas Day.
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