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Tuesday, 30 June 2009

So 20th Century

Timothy Rub, PMOA's New Director, right

Art Museum Gets it Wrong

By Richard Carreño
Increase prices. Increase revenue. Wrong.

By increasing its gate rate by $2 across the spectrum of its general admission offers (now up to $16 per adult), the Philadelphia Museum of Art is attempting to ramp up revenue on the cheap -- at the turnstile. Bad move.

The recently announced price increases will make the PMOA only more of a place for the haves and the have-mores. (The museum is already burdened by this reputation).

To be sure, admission to the PMOA at $16 is worth every penny. The museum's collection is world-class, and worth the visit at any reasonable price -- once!

Where pricing gets dicey is when a non-tourist visitor, like myself, wants to show up frequently. That puts a pinch in the purse, and the museum, like its brethren institutions, knows it. That's where Plan B kicks in: The unstated policy of promoting annual memberships. (Now at $65 per annum).

Museums like to lock in members. Members represent another revenue fund-raising tier that can solicited in a variety of creative -- and nettlesome -- ways. Moreover, development hacks love the numbers game, presenting the breath of rank-and-file membership to heavy-hitter donors as proof of community support. Foundations love proof of community support.

What the PMOA doesn't get is that its current fund-raising model is so 20th century. Not 19th century. (In the 1800's, the 'gate' didn't matter). Today, its superannuated model isn't even close to the fund-raising realities of the 21st century. Especially, at a time when the economy is staggered by recession.

What the PMOA has adopted -- and, this, to its peril -- is the Museum of Modern Art model of revenue enhancement. In other words, Broadway-sized prices. (MOMA's rack rate is 20 bucks).

That might work in the Big Apple, home to the Great White Way. Whether it will fly in the Quaker City, home to the Philly cheese steak, is quite another matter.

One, the museum's new pricing policy presumes that admission rates will increase, or, at the very least, remain flat. Big assumption. Even bigger presumption. Given the economy and the public's cut-backs in discretionary spending, down-turn is more like it.

Two, Philadelphia, unlike New York, doesn't have a natural, almost limitless flow of tourists seeking cultural nourishment -- and willing to pay Broadway prices in this strictly off-Broadway town. (Tourists here fancy the family-oriented kiddy stuff, like the Independence Hall and the Ducks tour combo sort of thing).

In other words, the PMOA is killing the golden sucker -- just at a time when it needs that visitor the most.

Instead of spending millions on such frivolous boondoggles as its new parking garage (Great! Exactly what we need: Another invitation to a drive-by visit to Philly), the PMOA should explore the 21st-century model of museum financing, adopted most recently and most successfully in Britain. That is a free gate. Followed by price gouging for 'block-buster' shows and in the sales of museum-related gift items. (To be perfectly honest, the PMOA is pretty much doing the later already).

How is this free pricing policy actually possible? Because it's not really 'free;' it's subsidized. By government and foundation grants. Not sham subsidies like you see/read in the advertising for the block-busters. This money goes into the general fund (hello, garage, anyone?); never to reduce admission.

Moreover, the PMOA and its trade group should get serious with the Nutter and Rendell administrations about real funding for the museum. Hell, they can give away millions to our professional sporting franchises. How about some loose change for cultural institutions, which studies show are as popular, or even more so popular than a Sixers game? Unfortunately, museum curators don't seem to know how play hardball with City Hall and Harrisburg hacks.

I almost forgot: There's another important revenue stream in the 'free admission' model -- visitors. That's right visitors -- and their discretionary spending once they've been committed to a 'free' visit. For example, I visited The National Gallery in London a few weeks ago. Admission: Free. Gift Shop bill: About $150. Cafe: About $20. Who won?

Why are museums free in Washington? See above.

The 'free' model has also been already adopted by some private museums. The Getty in Los Angeles doesn't charge. But look out for those stiff parking/tram fees! (The PMOA may want to try a variant at its Soviet-styled parking garage). The Walters in Baltimore, in a Philadelphia-like urban environment, also gets away without charging -- and without wanton spending on a garage. In the most ironic twist, even the Cleveland Museum of Art is free, a signature achievement of its former director, Timothy Rub, who was, of all things, announced as the PMOA's new director this week. (That the PMOA board would raise admission fees knowing full well of Rub's commitment to free entry is almost unconscionable).


In France museums are free to students, teachers, and journalists. That's a good start, especially the journalist bit.

Even the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, arguably the world's greatest museum, is free. I know, I know. Don't tell me. You've always paid at the Met. That's because you haven't read the fine print. Met admission prices are donations. Get it. Pay as you wish. And trust me. You still get a smile from the kid selling the ticket.

Meantime, at the PMOA, I'll continue to subscribe to my own free-ish admission policy. Showing up on pay-as-you-wish Sundays. Yes, to be sure, the new Scrooge-like policy only allows one discounted Sunday per month. See you there. Here's my buck.


(This article appears in BroadStreetReview.com in a different form).

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