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Free for Over Half a Century, Indianapolis Museum of Art Will Begin Charging Admission

The entrance to the Indianapolis Museum of Art, photograph from Wikipedia.
The entrance to the Indianapolis Museum of Art (image via Wikipedia)

In March of last year, the new director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA), Charles Venable, cut 29 jobs to relieve a budget problem. While the museum’s endowment is one of the largest in the country, Venable apparently still believes more must be done to ensure the financial success of the institution, namely, moving from free general admission to $18.

Save for 2006, when the museum tried charging admission for less than a year, the IMA has been free since 1941. While special exhibitions have long cost money and visitors are charged for parking, $18 is a steep hike.

The IMA announced the news on December 12 in a press release almost comically titled, “IMA announces new campus enhancement plan to improve visitor experience and financial sustainability.” Buried in paragraph nine, near the end of the release, was the notice of new entrance fees.

In regards to the financial needs of the museum, Venable told me over email:

For the first time we have also been paying both principal and interest on the IMA’s outstanding $121MM in bond debt that was issued in association with the last building expansion. The IMA’s goal is to spend no more than 5% of the twelve-quarter rolling average of the endowment by 2017 while continuing to pay principal on our outstanding debt, which means we need to raise an additional $3MM to $5MM every year from increased donations and earned revenue.

In early 2013 Venable said he wanted to increase revenue by doubling the museum’s visitors to over 800,000 a year with blockbuster shows. As I’ve previously written, with a large number of layoffs and some high-profile exits, this will be hard (although the museum has hired a new curator of contemporary art). How Venable will succeed after initiating admission fees as well is unclear, and lacking in historical precedent at the museum. IMA attendance remained relatively steady the first year of Venable’s appointment, falling from 393,000 in 2012 to 384,000 in 2013; the numbers aren’t yet in for 2014. Maxwell L. Anderson, the previous director of the IMA and current director of the Dallas Museum of Art, did double the IMA’s attendance — after dropping entrance fees (something he also did in Dallas).

Major Hoosier philanthropist and art collector Jeremy Efroymson, whose family name marks the IMA’s entrance pavilion, wrote me over email about his concern regarding the decision. “$18 for adults seems really high to me. The people who will be most affected I believe will be the low-income families,” he said.

Efroymson also worries that another key museum-goer, the casual art fan or the Indianapolis visitor, won’t be willing to pay the price. Will someone in town for a football game shell out $56 for a family of four? Efroymson doubts it. “The IMA needs to do everything it can to appeal to a diverse group of people. This is just the wrong message to send.”

In a letter to the editor, Tom Hiatt, chairman of the board of governors at the IMA, defended the decision, which was approved unanimously by the board. Hiatt cites private research that found IMA guests didn’t like having to pay once for parking and then again for special exhibitions. The new $18 fee neatly includes both.

“Our primary goal in instituting an admission charge is to encourage our visitors to become members,” Hiatt writes. He notes that membership costs will remain $55 for an individual and $75 for a family.

Image from the gardens at Lilly House, image from Wikipedia.
View from the gardens at Lilly House (image via Wikipedia)

Venable has also stressed the value of every visitor entering the institution through the same door. The IMA grounds are massive, including a 100-acre Art and Nature Park, 26 acres of the Lilly House and Gardens, the Toby theater, and more, allowing a guest to visit one part of the museum without ever seeing others or interacting with staff. While the park will remain free, making everyone enter in the same way will help the institution properly count and guide visitors. Venable is betting that giving everyone a more thorough introduction to all that the museum has to offer will help ensure repeat visitors and new members.

One recent exciting change at the IMA is the appointment of Scott Stulen as curator of audience experiences and performance. Stulen previously worked at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and is the creator of the Internet Cat Video Festival. I can’t wait to see all that Stulen will add to the IMA.

Yet I remain concerned about what this new admission fee will mean for the future of the Indianapolis arts community. I have high hopes for new hires like Stulen to carry on the museum’s legacy, even after more than 20 staff members were laid off last year, but the fee raises the question: who will be able to participate in and benefit from that quality?

Editor’s note: The author, an Indiana native, was a paid intern at the Indianapolis Museum of Art from October 2009 to July 2010.

Correction: This article originally stated that the IMA’s endowment is among the 10 largest in the country, but that statistic has been called into question. We’ve amended the piece accordingly.

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