Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Watteau vs Wallet: or, putting a price on your museum visit

Working in an industry that you've always enjoyed from 'the other side' is undoubtedly a privilege, but it doesn't half limit your weekend options. Having worked in one of the UK's best museums for almost four years, it's now impossible for me to just 'relax' and enjoy a visit to any one of the world-class art institutions I now find on my doorstep. Exhibition layouts, hang heights, the merits of various promotional fonts – don't I sound fun to be with?

Yet what particularly caught my eye on my last museum trip (to the de Young, as it happens) was the sheer number of visitors spilling through the doors. There wasn't a downpour outside, or a special promotion taking place; these people had all simply decided that a museum experience was worth their time on a sunny Saturday. Most strikingly for me - coming from a country where the majority of museums and galleries are free to the public - that it was worth the admission fee.

For US readers entirely accustomed to paying for their art, I should clarify that in 2001, the UK government granted universal free access to national museums. This means that special exhibitions aside, any visitor - whether city local or foreign tourist - can enter institutions such as the British Museum, Tate Modern, the National Gallery and my old employer without paying a penny for the privilege. Not so here in San Francisco, where an adult will pay $10 at the de Young or the Legion of Honor, and $18 at the SFMOMA.

The notion of charging for access to 'culture' is endlessly thorny one, throwing up particularly controversial issues like government subsidy for the arts (not to mention the tricky politics of excluding those who genuinely can't afford to get past the entrance desk). The US is by no means alone in pricing the experience - most museums across Europe and throughout Australia also charge some form of fee, and there are rumblings back in Britain about following suit. Yet what especially interests me as a newcomer to this country is the idea of the 'worth' and 'value' of a museum visit. What does being charged – and having to pay – do to the way we think about that kind of experience?

The British Museum: free as a bird.
(Image: Steff, Wikimedia Commons)
Historically, admission charges have had some very different effects on popularity. On one hand, those UK national museums all saw their visitor numbers soar with the establishment of free access, with London's Victoria & Albert Museum being a particularly interesting example: its visitor numbers halved after it instigated a new £5 (c.$8) admission fee in 1997, and they went up again by no less than 111% after it became free once more in 2001. Yet conversely, what's the most-visited museum in the world? It's the Louvre, which charges €10 (c.$14) for entry. Of course, it's an world-renowned cultural destination and a veritable tourist Mecca – but the V&A's hardly a backwater curio run by yokels, either.

So, when money gets involved: do you pay because it's worth it - or is it worth it because you pay? In simplistic terms, a charged museum visit is not like, say, a trip to a restaurant, where the amount shelled out will most probably correspond to the quality of your experience. Like the tip stuffed into the jar while your server's back is turned, coughing up extra at museum admission desk isn't going to grease the wheels of customer service.

Yet for many, price undeniably equals intrinsic worth. And if I'm not leaving my experience with a tangible 'product' or otherwise lasting record (postcards don't count), how else do I measure it? The restaurant comparison isn't (quite) as superficial as it first seems if we agree that both experiences only exist in the moment and in the memory. I see the art; I eat the food – in the most literal sense, that's it for me. So if something has no lasting physical 'presence' to measure it by, and that something is free, what does that imply about its quality; its calibre; its exclusivity? If a museum claims to be able to offer four thousand years of history under one roof yet doesn't charge to view these treasures, do certain visitors wonder if those treasures are really worth their time? 

The Met: name your price.
(Image: Sracer357, Wikimedia Commons)

The notion of 'underselling' the value of museums by not charging for them is drawn upon frequently by those UK advocates of reintroducing fees – and guess which country's charging habits get invoked? In a recent Observer article, the historian and Labour MP Tristan Hunt cited the “de facto $20 entrance fee for adults” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York - “so why not a fiver for London's great galleries? Would it really undermine our cultural competitiveness?” Silly old Britain, giving away for free what the rest of the world values at a premium - and, what's more, giving it away to tourists who'd probably happily pay for it! The problem here, of course, is that the Met doesn't actually charge $20: that's the 'recommended admission fee', of which you can pay as much or as little as you like. The Met explicitly asks you, the visitor, to 'value' your visit - and pay up accordingly.

It's tempting to conclude that we can judge just how much a person values an experience by the amount they're willing to pay for it. Unfortunately, there's a problem with this monetary definition of worth when it comes to this kind of encounter – and the problem is me. To explain, nearly all museums in my new home town offer 'free days', with vastly reduced or waived charges for special exhibitions - and while I of all people understand just how much it costs an institution just to keep the lights on, and would argue the value of museums to my grave, I totally seek out these free days! They're all marked in my diary, for all of 2011! Often, I'll even wait to catch a particular exhibition until I know it will cost me little or nothing at all, even if I'm salivating to see it.

So, can it be that the average person's appreciation of a museum actually has very little relationship to the amount they'd pay to access it? And what does that spell for the value of museum-going - that we 'talk the talk' about the intrinsic worth and merit of the experience, but when push comes to shove, the wallet trumps Watteau? That we'll only pay for seeing art – or indeed, anything we can't take home with us in physical form - when we have to? Or is the truth far more banal: that we just can't resist a bargain, and if faced with the opportunity to evade the cost, guilt-free on a free day, we'll take it? 

I'd be totally intrigued to see exactly what would happen if more museums and galleries introduced a charging policy like the Met's - a sliding scale that starts at zero. I love to think we'd get a complete picture of just how much we value the arts and the experience of encountering them. Yet I have a sneaking suspicion that it might just confirm that whatever your appraisal of art or your bank balance - if you don't have to pay, you probably won't.


  1. So I'm digging around in my memory for an interesting argument regarding museum charging. I can't remember the details but I learnt it during an economics lecture course, and it runs something along the lines of: Education and culture are valuable to society. Government wants to maximise the education of its population, and increase their cultural awareness. People attending museums have access to education and culture, therefore museums should be free (and government funded) in order to maximise the population's education.

    That's not quite it, but it was a sound economic argument, and I'll see if I can find it.

  2. Thanks for this Tom. The whole issue of access to museums somehow "bettering" the populace is a really interesting yet prickly one, and one that's been preoccupying me of late. There's quite a bit of evidence to suggest that increasing free access actually just brings in more of your 'traditional museum-goer' (ie. middle-class Radio 4 listener) as opposed to encouraging a genuine widening of the visitor demographic and getting in the 'non-traditional' visitor. This has been on my mind recently thanks to a Guardian opinion piece by Jonathan Jones which contains the same old arguments re: arts, curators and their audiences and seems to be suggesting that curators are consciously or unconsciously conspiring to keep exhibitions elitist and inaccessible... I'd be interested to know what you thought of it!