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Arts & Culture

Low- and No-Cost Museum Admission Aims to Boost Access

Museum of Photographic Arts
Stacy Keck
Museum of Photographic Arts

Local museums – along with Museum Month and library-based free pass programs –are taking measures to expose art to broader and diverse audiences by cutting admission fees

The list of local museums and art institutions that offer no- or low-cost admission is growing.

While the Timken Museum has long provided free access to its varied fine art collections, the Museum of Photographic Arts (MOPA) was one of the first traditional admission model institutions in the park to undertake a cost and access experiment. With the help of a Parker Foundation grant, MOPA switched to a “pay what you can” model in 2015.

Joaquin Ortiz — MOPA's director of innovation — said that they approached the switch as an experiment and as the program was nearing its closure that spring, they opted to extend it indefinitely beyond the grant window.

“Admission doesn’t necessarily pay the full price for keeping the museum open by any means at any institution that I know of,” Ortiz said, adding that the museum relies not just on the generosity of the City of San Diego’s public funding programs but also on individual donors, whether they be in the form of a suggested donation at the door or a larger gift.

“We wanted to open access to more people,” Ortiz said. “It can be a barrier for some people, even if they have the money.”

Ortiz, who credits institutions like the Dallas Museum of Art for providing a model for MOPA’s admission shift, hopes that their change will benefit other art spaces in San Diego as well.

San Diego Art Institute, perched just across the plaza from MOPA in Balboa Park, took the plunge this month. A grant from the Legler Benbough Foundation will provide no-fee admission for the entirety of 2020.

“When we talk about equity, it’s access,” said Jacqueline Silverman, executive director of SDAI, a contemporary art space that has focused on local art and artists since its inception in 1941. “It’s about building audiences. To advance artists we need to build them an audience.”

The grant, as with MOPA’s, is not a magic fix for funding all museum operations, nor does funding guarantee improved access, Silverman said.

“For arts, free admission isn't always the answer. It isn't always an obstacle and it isn't always a way to get more people in the door. But I think for SDAI it's a really important facet of what we do.” Silverman pointed out that the work they do is often with new artists and contemporary work that challenges audiences or isn't as readily sought out.

Also in Balboa Park: The San Diego History Center recently enacted a “give forward” donation-based admission system for their exhibitions, appealing to museumgoer generosity to subsidize the access for others. With ticketed-admission institutions now taking notes on the sustainability of these no- and low-cost experiments, organizations like the Balboa Park Online Collaborative are working to collect data and make it easier to share insights across institutions.

In addition to individual institutions making changes in their pricing models, there are other local regional programs in place to encourage access. San Diego Museum Council runs several collaborations each year, including February's "Museum Month" which provides half-price admission at more than 40 regional museums for residents or tourists. The Museum Council also hosts “The Big Exchange” in May (which allows pass holders to use their memberships in partner institutions) and “Kids Free in October" campaigns each year.

"What we’re seeing locally regarding no-cost or reduced admissions programs is reflective of what is happening nationally. Many museums are doing this to be more inclusive and/or reduce financial barriers to visitation, all in an effort to make their content and their collections more accessible. It will be interesting to see what the long-term impact is," said Rebecca Handelsman, board president for the San Diego Museum Council. "Of course, many museums in the county have always offered free admission – Barona Cultural Centerand Museum, La Jolla Historical Society, and Visions Art Museum, to name a few."

The San Diego Public Library has a "Check It Out" circulating membership pass program for three institutions: The New Children's Museum, San Diego Museum of Art and the Museum of Man. The hold lists for these 10-14 day passes are long (potentially hundreds of days), but certain branches may randomly have a copy on their shelves. The San Diego County Library has similar passes for SDMA, the New Children's Museum and the San Diego Children's Discovery Museum.