Art Institute admission increase
Why is the Art Institute raising admission to $18?
On May 23, the Art Institute increases general admission from $12 to $18, and $7 to $12 for students and seniors (Chicago residents get a $2 discount). It’s still free for children under 12, active members of the military and other groups, but some Chicagoans, including Ald. Ed Burke (14th), have criticized the change since it was announced in March.
By all accounts, the price hike is a response to the Art Institute’s rising operating costs. But at least one critic lays the shortfall at the feet of president and director James Cuno, claiming Cuno rejected moneymaking blockbuster shows of Impressionist art. Cuno denies that charge; he contends all of the museum’s ticketed exhibitions since his 2004 arrival “have either been Impressionist or equivalent American exhibitions.” He adds, however, that “not one of these exhibitions would be considered a ‘blockbuster.’ Exhibitions that drew 500,000 or 600,000 people ten years ago now draw 150,000. The downturn in attendance of special exhibitions is a national trend, not specific to the Art Institute.”
So if there’s no lack of Impressionist shows, why is the Art Institute in the red? Spokeswoman Erin Hogan gives us the lowdown.
Time Out Chicago: You’ve said the admission increase isn’t a response to the recession. How long has it been in the works?
Erin Hogan: Several years. We’ve historically increased our admission every two or three years, and our last increase was in 2004. But we were doing so much renovation that a lot of galleries were off view. We didn’t think it was fair to charge people more when they were going to see less.
TOC: What motivated the museum to raise admission?
Erin Hogan: Rising operating costs. Everything from the cost of pension plans and benefits for employees to heating and cooling costs for the building.
TOC: How much of the museum’s budget comes from admission?
Erin Hogan: Last year, it was $7 million out of a budget of $83 million.
TOC: Did fluctuations in funding from private sources have an effect?
Erin Hogan: No. This was about wanting to restructure admissions to be as transparent as possible. The $18 is an all-in fee. There’s no longer any special-exhibition charge; there’s not even a coat-check charge.
TOC: Until 2006, the museum’s admission was “discretionary.” Why couldn’t that continue?
Erin Hogan: We were one of the last museums in Chicago to eliminate the suggested admission fee. We found that it affected the smallest percentage of people coming to the museum. We have a lot of members come… a lot of people come during free hours. Virtually all of the remaining visitors were paying $12.
TOC: If most people pay the full amount, why can’t the museum make admission “suggested” again?
Erin Hogan: The museum is a nonprofit entity that has to pay bills like everybody else. If there’s a way that we could eventually offer free admission all the time, we are anxious to look into it. The fact is, we can’t do that right now. We’re doing what we need to do to stay viable and fulfill our mission.
TOC: Are there plans to make more free passes available through the Chicago Public Library?
Erin Hogan: I don’t know of any. The thing we’ve really tried to do, to be accessible, is to change our free hours from days to evenings.
TOC: In media coverage of the admission hike, I’ve seen some Chicagoans ask why the museum can’t “just sell a painting” to solve its financial problems. Why isn’t this an option?
Erin Hogan: Industry organizations like the Association of American Museums have strict guidelines about deaccessioning works in order to cover operating budgets. There is probably not a practice that is more frowned upon in the museum community. Museums can be professionally censured for doing something like that. We’re here to preserve works of art, educate the public and interpret the works that we have. We’re not here to sell works off when the museum faces a budget shortfall.
TOC: I’ve also read complaints that it will be hard to bring a family to the museum. How will the Art Institute help kids over 12 visit? Erin Hogan: [In fall 2008], we dropped the price of a student membership from $50 to $40. And all membership levels are now family-friendly. So if you’re a parent, your $80 membership allows in you, one adult guest and all the kids in your household under 18.
Admission is free Saturday 16 to May 22. The museum continues to offer free entry every Thursday 5–8pm (and until 9 in summer) and Fridays 5–9pm from Memorial Day to Labor Day, and every day in February.