Money, money, Monet
Every few years the debate about admission charges to national museums and galleries in the United Kingdom starts up again, although it is rare that anyone contributes a new argument. It has surfaced once more thanks to the response to the entry fees for the National Gallery’s exhibition Monet and Architecture, which opened last month. For the first time, the gallery is charging more than £20 for entry – visitors during the week will pay £20 but this rises to £22 at weekends. It should be pointed out that this includes a voluntary £2 donation, and so visitors who choose not to pay it can still enter for £20 (and £18 during the week). It is perhaps surprising that there should have been such a fuss, since £20 or even £22 is slightly under the going rate by the standards of London’s national museums: for example, Tate Modern is charging £22 for adult entry to Picasso 1932 – Love, Fame and Tragedy, with no element of voluntary donation and no differential between weekday and weekend entry. Tate has, however, sought to mitigate the impact of these charges by its new free membership scheme, ‘Tate Collective’, which allows sixteen to twentyfive year olds to buy exhibition tickets for £5.
Britain’s national museums and galleries impose fees for their principal temporary exhibitions largely because they do not charge for entry to their permanent collections. Having been introduced in the 1980s in some national museums, entry fees were abolished in 2001 and there is no political enthusiasm whatever for their reintroduction: the Mendoza Review into government support for museum and galleries, which reported in November last year, specifically excluded consideration of entry fees for national museums. The reaction to the National Gallery’s charges for exhibitions followed closely on from the news from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport that the total number of visits to the fifteen nationally funded museums in Britain had declined from a height of 50.8 million in 2014–15 to 46.5 million in 2016–17. Since the number of tourists visiting Britain in that time increased, the conclusion must be, as the National Gallery’s director, Gabriele Finaldi, told his trustees last year, that ‘the fall in numbers seemed to be in visitors from the UK’. The gallery had 5.2 million visitors in 2017, a 17 per cent decline from the 6.3 million visitors in 2016.
Although economic reasons for that decline – such as pressure on household incomes – were put forward, with the suggestion that high charges for exhibitions are deterring British visitors, there is plenty of evidence that the opposite is true and that the numbers simply reflect perceptions of the attractiveness of a museum or gallery in any one year. Those that staged exhibitions in 2016–17 that caught the public imagination saw substantial rises in attendance: at Tate Britain visitor numbers rose by 64 per cent in 2016–17, thanks in part to David Hockney, and at the Victoria and Albert Museum the success of Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains helped numbers increase by 26 per cent. This makes plain the importance of temporary exhibitions in sustaining visitor numbers as well as a museum’s revenues – revenues that will in part subsidise exhibitions that are free or attract only modest numbers.
Virtually every major museum and gallery outside the United Kingdom charges for entry. This year one of the bestknown exceptions, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, moved from a system of voluntary donations for all to a compulsory entry fee of $25 for out-of-state visitors. Although this brings it in line with most of the city’s other museums – the Museum of Modern Art, for example, charges $25 for entry – it prompted protests of the sort long familiar in the United Kingdom. The artist Ai Weiwei objected: ‘it’s like taking the jacket off a poor person. If they do this, I will never go to the Met’, but given the museum’s financial problems it is unlikely that these sentiments will sway its trustees. Such a system requires people to carry identity documents in order to gain free entry, and although this discriminates against those who do not or cannot carry such identification, it is not likely to be a cause of contention in the United States. British objections to identity cards, however, complicate arguments that foreign visitors should pay an entrance fee from which natives would be exempt.
In Berlin, by contrast, it has been announced that the Humboldt Forum, due to open in the rebuilt Berliner Schloss in 2019, will trial free entry for three years. This owes much to the advocacy of Neil MacGregor, one of its three founding directors, who was an ardent champion of free entry when director of the National Gallery and the British Museum. Although this experiment is being regarded with some nervousness in Berlin on the grounds of the potential impact it will have on the institutions of the Museum Island, which will continue to charge entry fees, there is a growing move in Germany towards free entry. In 2015 the Museum Folkwang, Essen, abolished entry fees for a five-year period, and this year it was joined by the Landesmuseum Württemberg, Stuttgart, which is waiving entry fees throughout 2018. They have been able to do this only because of substantial funding from private sponsors. This is a reminder that the lot of provincial museums is very different from those in major tourist destinations. In Britain, in the absence of such generous private funds, the quandary for regional galleries seems unsolvable. Whatever the financial benefits of the imposition of entrance fees, the results in terms of visitor numbers are depressing: when, for example, York Art Gallery introduced an entrance charge in 2015 in response to a cut in its grant from the City of York Council, admissions fell dramatically, from 226,404 in 2011–12 to 91,896 in 2015–16. Yet almost no regional gallery in Britain is in a position to make good the shortfall by staging hugely popular exhibitions. Although it is harsh to begrudge the National Gallery from seeking a high level of return for Monet and Architecture, this is a strategy available only to organisations that are already very privileged.