An artist rendering of the Broad Museum in LA, scheduled to open in fall 2015. The Broad will be free to the public.
In the LA Times, Christopher Knight wonders why museums in the US, as "tax-exempt, not-for-profit art institutions," aren't all free for visitors. Last year, UCLA's Hammer Museum did away with its admission fee, but that made it only the second major museum in LA (along with the Getty) to be open to anyone regardless of ability to pay. (As a result, attendance at Hammer jumped 25%.) Knight demonstrates how admission fees, besides being prohibitive to some low-income visitors, also skew the kind of work that's exhibited as museums:
Admission policies often have an unacknowledged influence on museum programs too, and it isn't always healthy. Admission fees turn visitors into customers, and relying on customers turns an educational enterprise—which is what a museum is—into a public entertainment. Quantity of response trumps quality of response, and in the short run the surest way to juice quantity is to popularize the program.
For example: It probably isn't an accident that each of the last three directors at the Museum of Contemporary Art [in LA] (general admission $12) has chosen to host an exhibition revolving around Andy Warhol. Contemporary art is not popular with the public, but Warhol is a household name—a celebrity. What Monet or Picasso is for Modern art, Warhol is to contemporary art.
The case for adolishing admission fees become even stronger if we realize that they constitute a negligible portion of a typcal museum's revenue: "Nationally, the portion of an art museum's annual operating budget that is covered by visitors pushing cash across the counter at the admissions desk hovers in the vicinity of 5%."
Read Knight's full article here. In light of these considerations, is there any reason that major museums shouldn't be free to the public?