The Dallas Museum of Art

The Dallas Museum of Art (photo via Flickr/purpletwinkie)

The Dallas Museum of Art (DMA) has announced that come January 21, two aspects of the museum will be free: general admission (cool!) and memberships (wait, what?).

Free admission is pretty rare in the US, so it’s always exciting when an institution embraces it in the hopes of reaching more visitors. And the Dallas Museum actually had free admission until 2001, so this is a return to its roots. Special exhibitions, however, will still cost money, and the prices for those will change based on the show and how much the museum can get away with charging for it — er, I mean, “[T]hose prices will be indexed to what the market seems to indicate,” as DMA director Maxwell Anderson told the Dallas Morning News.

But the bigger and more surprising news is the creation of a category of free membership, called the DMA Friends Program. (Paid memberships still exist under the header of the DMA Partners Program.) The Friends program sort of turns the common notion of museum membership on its head. Traditionally, members donate money, and in return they receive perks like free admission — which everyone now gets at the DMA — and access to special events. If members aren’t donating money anymore, and if everyone gets in free anyway, what’s the point? And what’s the goal?

In his interview with the Dallas Morning News, Anderson talks about engagement with the community and with the city. He says:

When somebody from South Dallas walks up to the front desk, and the person behind the counter says, ‘Welcome to the DMA – are you members?’ What are they hearing? It’s like walking into a country club. It freaks you out. It’s exclusionary. I want everybody to feel they belong here, so I want everybody to be a member.

This is great. Museums have struggled for pretty much all of memorable history with the tension between being accessible spaces of public trust or elite institutions for the wealthy; as Ben Davis’s recent Artinfo column about the appalling lack of diversity in the art world seems to indicate, the latter vision has prevailed thus far. Letting everyone not only enter the museum for free but join it — and therefore feel invested in it — seems like an exciting attempt to buck that trend. (Although it should be said that if the wealthy white people are still the ones donating the large sums of money, they’ll still inevitably be the ones calling the shots.)

So what does this free membership look like? From the DMA’s website:

Visitor participation and recognition are the central tenets of the DMA Friends program. As visitors engage with and contribute to our Museum community, they will earn credits as part of a personal rewards system. Coming to the Museum, viewing exhibitions, participating in programs, dialoguing with others, and sharing experiences online are all important ways that visitors can contribute to the DMA Friends community. DMA staff will engage with Friends in the galleries and online to recognize, amplify, and reward their participation. The Museum will create bundles of these experiences as “badges” in a new online engagement platform; as Friends earn badges for their activities in the Museum, they will earn points that can be redeemed for a variety of rewards, such as free tickets to DMA exhibitions, discounts at the store and cafe, and access to exclusive experiences at the Museum. DMA Friends can choose from multiple categories of activities and rewards to best reflect how and why they participate in the Museum community.

On the one hand, part of me recoils at some of the language and descriptions here: “badges,” “points,” and “rewards” conjure thoughts of Starbucks and Belly and special credit cards. Is that what the museum is: something we need to be enticed to buy into (although I guess in this case, not quite literally)?

On the other hand, for better or worse, this may simply be the way that people engage with companies and institutions alike these days, and the DMA might one day prove visionary for translating that into a museum membership model. And what is nice is that it seems to offer a more holistic, ongoing, active experience than the typical museum-going one.

Other people have tried to rework the membership model before: the Brooklyn Museum’s 1stfans program comes immediately to mind. But 1stfans, though beloved by many, didn’t catch on, and it ended earlier this year. We’ll see what happens in Dallas.

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Jillian Steinhauer

Jillian Steinhauer is a former senior editor of Hyperallergic. She writes largely about the intersection of art...

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