From the Editor
by Claire Ruud
Last week, The Blanton made two small announcements that add up to something much more significant: the institution is continuing its move to reposition itself as the city’s destination museum, not merely a better-than-average university museum. The announcements were as follows: first, the price of admission went up by $2 across the board (museum entry remains free for University of Texas at Austin faculty, staff and students); second, Third Thursdays, the museum’s monthly free evening, will enjoy augmented programming, while B Scene, the museum’s late night party, will move from a monthly to a bi-monthly basis.
In regard to entry fees, we’re talking a 28% increase to the price of general admission ($7 to $9) and a 40% increase to the price of a senior/student ticket ($5 to $7). For comparison, I checked the regular admission prices of other museums. The new ticket prices are comparable to those of other university museums, if on the high end: The BAMPFA at UC Berkeley ticks in at $8 ($8 million operating budget), The Hammer at UCLA at $7 ($14 million operating budget). As for Texas museums, The Fort Worth Modern and The Dallas Museum of Art are charging $10 and the Museum of Fine Arts Houston is hanging on at $7, at least for the time being. However, the operating budgets of these institutions must be considerably larger than the Blanton’s.
The Blanton’s price hikes are in step with rising museum admission prices nationwide. In fact, the museum’s $2 increase is modest compared to some. Last year, for example, The Art Institute of Chicago provoked outrage when it raised the price of admission to its museum to a whopping $18. I see the logic behind these moves. These museums are worth what they charge and more. For example, income from admission probably accounts for about 4% of the Blanton’s $6 million operating budget. In that sense, for $9, visitors are getting much more than they’re paying for. Admission prices are not just about revenue, either. They are a way for a museum to communicate quality its audiences: in other words, The Blanton’s new ticket price says to visitors, “a trip to this museum is worth at least $9.” Through this move, the Blanton is positioning its collection more than a “teaching collection” for the University and positioning its exhibition programming as worthwhile for non-university audiences. The Blanton should be communicating this information to audiences. The question is, is price the best way to communicate value in this instance? According to received wisdom, the more the consumer is asked to pay, the more she values the good or service. But whether this is true or not, does this logic justify charging more for museums?
I find it difficult to say that museums shouldn’t charge the admission prices they are charging for two reasons. First, I believe they are worth what they charge, probably more. Second, I know museums are underfunded and need new income sources. However, even if the ticket prices don’t deter any visitors, how much additional revenue will the $2 increase in admission generate? I’d guess an additional $60,000, or 1% of the institutions operating budget. I know that every penny counts. But is it worth $60,000 for the museum entry to cost more than a minimum wage worker makes for an hour of work? It goes without saying that higher prices are a bigger deal for certain key audiences—students attending other universities, young professionals age 20 to 30, low and middle income families—and not as big a deal for others—upper-middle class families and tourists. For that reason alone, rising admission prices are difficult to swallow. Is there no way to buck the trend?
I’m not sure. Practical alternatives are difficult to come by. The Blanton’s new director, Ned Rifkin, has plenty of experience, and I’m sure he’s working creatively to increase revenue in all kinds of ways. It’s tough.
When I heard the news about the Blanton, I began asking colleagues about their philosophies regarding museum admission. Pay-what-you-can is popular. An advantage of this system is that the museum can still list a general admission “price,” allowing the institution to signify the value of the visit in fiscal terms. This is what the Met does. General admission is listed as $20, but it’s pay what you can. However, one colleague pointed out a corresponding disadvantage of this system: out of responsibility (or even guilt), a pay-what-you-will system compels some visitors to give more than they can actually afford. This colleague suggested a token $1 admission price. What I like about this idea is that the smallness of the price actually attracts attention to the value of the experience. “Wow, I’m only paying $1 for this?! It’s worth like $15.”
As for the Blanton, the good news is that the museum remains free the third Thursday of every month, and moreover, the institution is expanding its Thursday night programming. The Blanton’s new book club will meet at this time; films will be screened; artists will speak; curators will offer tours. The museum café’s Thursday night “happy hour special” ($5 for a slice of pizza and a glass of wine) may be a gimmick, but it’s a good one. After a long day at work, would-be visitors need to get their blood sugar up before trekking through museum galleries.
At the same time, the Blanton is scaling back B Scene from a monthly to bi-monthly event. I’m happy to see this trade-off. Over the past few years, museums all over the country latched on to B Scene – type, trendy parties. The idea was twofold: make a little money and bring in new audiences. I’ve always been skeptical of the success of either. In regard to the former, after you subtract all the staff hours put into organizing, publicizing and executing these events, how much income are they really bringing into the museum? And as for the latter, does anyone have substantial data on the conversion rate from party guest into return visitor? I imagine it’s low. The Blanton is making a smart move by ramping up Third Thursdays and backing off of B Scene. Third Thursday isn’t merely a party, it’s an opportunity for engagement.
One final important note: the approaching completion of the new Visual Art Center in UT’s Department of Art and Art History is further enabling the Blanton to restructure and rebrand itself as a high-caliber museum of broad appeal. The VAC, scheduled to open its doors this coming September, will house artists-in-residence in the department as well as a teaching gallery for faculty – curated exhibitions and a gallery for student – run programming. In other words, the VAC will provide a dynamic pedagogical space for the Department of Art, while the Blanton reaches out to a broader audience. This equation is too simple, of course. Hopefully, both institutions will serve university and non-university audiences in complementary ways. However, the very locations of these two institutions—the VAC at the heart of the art building and the Blanton on the edge of campus nearest the Capitol and downtown—signifies the roles they are positioned to take within the university and the city as a whole.
Claire Ruud is Associate Director of Fluent~Collaborative.