By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 1, 2006
The Baltimore Museum of Art and the Walters Art Museum announced yesterday that both museums are eliminating admission fees, a step made possible by an $800,000 gift from the city and county.
Anne Arundel County also gave each museum $30,000 for the effort.
Free admission starts Oct. 1 and marks a return to a time 24 years ago when it didn't cost anything to get into the two museums. In recent years, they charged $10. The directors acknowledge they are taking a risk in financially tight times, but said they wanted to make the museums cultural destinations for locals and out-of-towners, as well as to increase diversity. "We wanted to do something innovative," said Gary Vikan, director of the Walters Art Museum.
The Walters teamed with the BMA to convince Baltimore and Baltimore County officials that it was the right time for the unusual subsidy. Government money usually goes to buildings and repairs.
"For the BMA, it was identified as a bold idea in our strategic planning process. We wanted to throw the doors open," said Doreen Bolger, the museum's director. "We underscored the importance of the museums to the cultural life of the area and how it attracted the tourists."
Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley applauded the idea: "This significant investment will provide many more people with the opportunity to experience the beauty, creativity and significance of art in our lives."
The Baltimore Museum of Art, founded in 1914, has a $11.2 million budget and gets about 230,000 visitors a year. The Walters, started in 1931, has a $11.8 million budget and drew 133,484 last year.
Bolger said the free First Thursdays, a ritual for 10 years, have brought new visitors to the museum. "Our audience in general is 7 percent non-Caucasian, but it is 18 percent non-Caucasian on free days," she said. At the Walters, 25 percent of its visitors come between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. on Saturdays, when admission is free.
Vikan studied how attendance increased at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and the Cincinnati Art Museum when they eliminated entrance fees.
The museums have projected that they will each lose about $240,000 in admissions, about 2 percent of their earned income. They have estimated they will spend an additional $500,000 to promote the new policy. The museums plan to approach government, foundations, corporations and individuals to make up the shortfall and cover the added expenses, and expect the government support for free admissions to continue for three years.
The museums will continue to charge a fee for special shows, such as "Pissarro: Creating the Impressionist Landscape," which opens at the BMA in February.