Earlier this year, the travel site TripAdvisor named the Art Institute of Chicago the top museum in both the United States and the world. Roughly 1.4 million people visit the museum annually. But the cost of admission to the Art Institute is keeping many out, leaving them only to admire only the lion statues that protect the museum’s collection, not the art inside.
“The cost is annoying, and it keeps me from going to museums when I’m home,” said Elin Meliska, a museum program coordinator from Chicago who now works in Washington, D.C. “To take a family of four to a museum can cost over $100, especially if you’re seeing a special exhibit.”
In the past five years alone, the cost of visiting the Art Institute has increased by 50 percent. The museum instituted a mandatory fee for the first time in June 2006 and increased admission fees from $12 to $18 in 2009. The Chicago Park District voted to reduce the rate to $16 a few months later. In January 2013, the museum again increased fees by 10 percent.
The Art Institute isn’t alone among Chicago museums in raising its admission fees. In 2013, the Museum of Science and Industry and the Field Museum also obtained permission from the city to increase the cost of admission.
“Collecting revenue is simply necessary to keep museums functioning,” said Rebecca Schejbal of Museums in the Park, a nonprofit umbrella organization consisting of 11 Chicago-area museums located on Chicago Park District property. “For most of our members, admissions fees are a significant portion of the museum’s operating budgets.”
Museums in the Park’s members include the Adler Planetarium, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Chicago History Museum, the DuSable Museum of African American History, the Field Museum, the National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Museum of Science and Industry, the National Museum of Mexican Art, the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum and the John G. Shedd Aquarium.
The recent rate hikes at the Art Institute, the Museum of Science and Industry, and the Field Museum required Chicago Park District board approval because the museums themselves sit on park district property.
Though museum officials routinely cite admission fees as an important source of revenue, tax filings indicate otherwise. In 2013, the Art Institute generated $253 million in total revenue with a mere $11 million from admission fees. In 2012, the Museum of Science and Industry generated $9 million of its $51 million in total revenue from entrance charges. In 2012, admission fees brought in approximately $11 million of the Field Museum’s roughly $74 million in total revenue. Grants and philanthropic gifts typically represent a much larger portion of museum revenue.
Barbara Engelskirchen, chief development officer at the National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture, doesn’t believe that her museum’s decision is to remain free is responsible for any real financial loss.
“Some of our funders appreciate that we don’t charge, and Target awards us funding precisely because we choose not to charge,” she said. “It’s something they specifically help us, along with other museums around the country, fund.”
Utilizing a different model, the Museum of Contemporary Art has suggested general admission costs but doesn’t require a set amount to enter. “Suggested admission means that visitors may pay what the wish,” said spokeswoman Elena Grotto. “This allows everyone the opportunity to have access to the museum.”
Area museum officials say they conscious of costs imposed on attendees. Each member museum offers the equivalent of 52 free days per year for Illinois residents, along with daily discounts for Chicago residents, according to Museums in the Park. However, at a free day in March, lines snaked around the Shedd, and visitors waited up to three hours to be admitted. General admission to the Art Institute of Chicago is free to Illinois residents every Thursday, but lines frequently stretch down the block.
Museums in the Park also highlights that each of its member institutions has a policy of admitting children free of charge, though prices and age policies differ.
For example, the Chicago Public Library offers a limited number of Kids Museum Passports for library members and adult residents of Chicago. The passport allows a family of four, including two adults, general admission during regular museum hours. Passes are available for Museum in the Park member institutions along with the Brookfield Zoo.
Without question, the economic impact of the city’s museums is great. Using the aggregate operating expenses of the museums and their combined total attendance, the most recent Museums in the Parks’ report calculated expenditures generated by museums and visitors at roughly $700 million. Approximately 22,000 full-time equivalent jobs are generated by the 11 museums.
Still, the increasing cost of museum admissions seems to undermine the city’s commitment to making its educational and cultural assets available to all visitors, especially as the city attempts to ramp up its efforts to attract tourists.
And the high cost stands in direct opposition to the very mission and role of the museum in modern life, some cultural experts argue. Museums are meant to preserve and protect artifacts of importance and significance and should be accessible to the general public.
When the Shedd Aquarium and the Adler Planetarium first opened in 1930, both charged 25 cents to enter. The Field Museum charged 25 cents when it first opened in 1894. The Museum of Science and Industry, housed since 1933 in the Palace of Fine Arts building constructed for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, only began charging admission in 1991 when upkeep costs became too high.
Museums are able to provide context that no other institution can. “It’s an opportunity to see the real thing,” said Linda St. Thomas, chief spokeswoman for the Smithsonian Institution. “You can go online and see a T. Rex or Dorothy’s ruby slippers or Lincoln’s hat and Michelle Obama’s gown, but when you come into a museum, you see the real thing.”
In October 2012, the City of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events proposed a cultural plan for the city’s cultural and economic growth. Key to the plan was elevating Chicago’s global status by fostering cultural innovation and highlighting excellence in the arts.
As part of the plan, Mayor Emanuel aims to attract 55 million visitors annually by the year 2020. Today approximately 40 million people visit Chicago each year. In 2007 the city hit a tourism record with 46.3 million visitors.
In 2012, the Museums in the Park member institutions were collectively visited by nearly 8 million people, including more than 1 million schoolchildren, who visited as part of organized field trips.
Meliska remains frustrated by today’s prohibitive cost of museum admissions and argues that museums need to do more to reach out to lower-income groups and underrepresented groups. “I think it’s kind of an old guard way of making the museum more welcoming for the class of people who can afford it,” she said.
“Cost is a barrier, especially for 20-somethings, people from low socioeconomic status backgrounds, and low income school students.”