The case for free museums
Catherine Baker | Wednesday, February 10, 2016
I’m in Chicago this week for some graduate acting auditions, and I decided to use my free time, as any good Notre Dame student is wont to do, exploring the various museums the city has to offer.
My first stop was to see the Art Institute, as I had been there my freshman year to see a Lichtenstein exhibit that had been absolutely gorgeous. I walked up to the desk, asked the woman for a student discount, and she replied the cost was $19.
$19? My immediate thought was that she must be joking. How on earth do they expect to bring up culturally aware children if they require people to pay such a ridiculous fee? I’m a college student. I’m not made of money. But according to my British principles, I simply paid the admission fee because it would be far more embarrassing not to and walked away muttering to myself about how most of the museums in England are free and how even in New York most of them are pay-as-you-will. Fuming, I stayed until the bitter end, sitting at the Singer-Sargent exhibit for at least an hour to use up my time.
Why would Chicago have such an expensive museum fee? Why would any city have such an expensive museum fee?
Firstly, it deters people from going to see museums. Someone not as well off is not going to pay that price for a museum, and they shouldn’t have to. This is part of culture, it’s a part of our shared history. Frankly, you shouldn’t have to pay anything. But the Chicago museums appear to be part of a capitalist scheme to restrict the art world to a few small elite, and I cannot say I am a fan.
Now I’m not saying New York doesn’t have its problems. At the Met, signs are so misleading most people will pay the $25 fee because no one likes to go against the norm, especially a norm printed on a large sign by the check-in desk. But at least there is the option to pay less when you research it. Chicago seems to not want to put its museum prices on its websites, probably to sneakily trick unsuspecting tourists like myself.
Secondly, there are plenty of cities with free museums. I spent a semester in London, where I could walk into the National Gallery every day at lunch if I wanted to and wander the halls filled with classic paintings. I could do homework next to a Monet for free. For some reason, American cities seem keen to deny that exciting prospect to people because of money.
Now this brief rant might seem ridiculous to some. For one, admissions fees are meant to pay for the upkeep of the museum, and secondly, how else is the museum going to make any money? But the first complaint is actually incorrect. Most of the money museums make is actually from donors and corporate sponsors. Admissions make an absolutely negligible dent on the costs of a museum’s upkeep and acquisition of new paintings.
To the second point, why doesn’t the state do something useful for once and fund cultural centers? Yeah I get it, socialism is a scary prospect, and once we give into one aspect of it, then it’s just a slippery slope to the Soviet Union. But I frankly don’t mind paying taxes to walk around ancient fossils and Andy Warhols. In fact, that seems a rather good use of my money.
Why deny a whole group of people that cannot afford to go see these things the opportunity to do so?
I did go through the websites and discovered people who live in Illinois can get discounts or free admission to certain exhibits or museums most of the time, which is actually pretty good, so I applaud Chicago for that. And dupe the tourists all you want I suppose.
But this message is as much for Chicago as it is for the rest of the major cities in America. Stop making it difficult for people to experience history, to stand next to the ancient world, to experience a world outside of themselves for once.
Whatever your arguments about museums, as long as we have them, please make them public.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.