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Saturday, 23 September 2006

Barnes Free Foundation

Barnes Free Foundation

By Richard Carreño

Given the Barnes Foundation\'s current annual deficit of $4.5 million, and a daunting fundraising mission of $50 million to kick-start the museum\'s reincarnation in Center City, the Barnes\' new executive director, Derek Gillman, will surely be tempted by the quick fix. That is? Jolt immediate cash flow by upping the admission price to the Barnes\' priceless collection.

Derek, please don\'t.

Yes, I know. Hiking admission fees -- sometimes almost to the tune of a Broadway show or a family day at Disney World -- seems the trend in the museum world. Two of America\'s top museums have done exactly that.

When the Museum of Modern Art in New York reopened in 2004 after a much-vaunted face-lift, museum-goers got one surprise after another. Picasso\'s Guernica was no longer there. (Repatriated, quite rightly, to Spain). And, a lot more problematically, a new admission price, a charge of $20 per adult ticket (up from $12) that made MOMA\'s admission fee the most expensive of any art museum in the country.

MOMA\'s price-gouging of the average musuem-goer (unlike the Rockefellers who endowed the place) didn\'t go unnnoticed. Just last month, the Metropolitan Museum of Art jacked up its admission fee, from $15, to the now-familiar -- thanks to MOMA --$20 fee.

But with a difference. MOMA\'s fee is compulsory. The Met\'s is suggested. In other words, at the Met, you can walk in, act a bit sheepish, and pay little or nothing, and you still get an admission button. (I know. I\'ve done it).

Is upping prices, then, the coming thing? Worse, coming to a museum near you, as in the Barnes, you ask?

On this money question, Gillman\'s track record suggests that he may well resist taking the quick fix.

At the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, over which Gillman presided as president and chief executive officer before his appointment at the Barnes this week, he held general admission to $7.This, even in the midst of a massive, multi-million acquisition and renovation of its new Hamilton Building. This seamless expansion of PAFA, a display of Gillman\'s brilliant fundraising acumen, no doubt played a significant role in his selection at the Barnes.

The bad news? Gillman canned free admissions on Sunday mornings.

Let\'s hope, at least, that Gillman will preserve -- not boost -- the Barnes\' $10 current admission fee as he sherpards the museum\'s move to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

The fact is -- and Gillman knows this as well as any other heavy-hitter in the fundraising business -- that the show isn\'t underwritten by the fans in the bleechers. Such is also the case in museum financing. The \'gate\' is one of the least important aspects in institutional financing, especially when, like at the Barnes, such fat-cat foundations as the Pew, Annenberg, and the Lenfest are bankrolling most big-ticket costs.

But the \'gate\' is of paramount importance when imploring the rich to part with their wealth. They want to know that their donations will be valued by many -- and that many will also see their names as donors in lights, endowing wings, rooms, what-have-you.

Visitor stats at the Barnes, at its current location in Lower Merion, are low, about 60,000 per year. But Barnes trustees are optimistic, once the move to Center City has been done, that admissions will soar to 200,000. Huh? Not likely if Gillman and the trustees try to make up for short-term needs with an admission hike.

In other words, admission increases are not always good for business.

Even the grande dame of Philadelphia\'s cultural insitutiions, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, has experienced lagging overall attendance in recent years, regardless of an ongoing series of block-buster exhibits. This, too, even though the Art Museum charges only $12 per person, and sponsors a \'pay what you wish\' day on Sundays.

Despite highly-publicized mega-price increases at MOMA and at the Met, the future of museum entrance fees may, in fact, not be one of ever higher and higher gate prices. Creative financing schemes, for example, have allowed the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to be free after 5 p.m. The J. Paul Getty Museum in LA, a beneficiary of the Getty family\'s millions, is always free.

Smithsonian Institution museums, as are as other national museums in Washington, are also free, thanks to federal funding. (Government funding also allows viritually all museums in London to be free, as well). In Louisiana, as I learned during a recent visit, museums are free if you\'re a state resident.

More astonishing is the recent example of two Baltimore museums, the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Walters Art Museum, a gem on the order of Philly\'s PAFA, that declared an always-free admissions policy, come one, come all, starting in October. Both museums are returning to their roots, as both had free admissions when they were founded in the early 20th century.

Given the fact that almost all museums in the United States are already government funded -- that, after all, is what their non-profit, non-taxable status means --- it\'s a wonder that other museums don\'t also return to their always-free roots.

Most important, let\'s hope that the Barnes learns some of these lessons as it takes up digs on the Parkway, just a stone\'s throw from the Philadelphia, ahem, Free Library. Did I hear free? A Barnes Free Foundation, perhaps. That, Derek, has a nice ring to it.