Myths and excuses regarding free admission

Reading Colleen Dilen Schneider’s Free admission days do not actually attract underserved visitors to cultural institutions, I realized that, using concrete data, she touched on a number of issues that many of us working in the cultural field, and directly with people, know by experience. Starting by debunking the myth that admission fees are the main barrier to visitation.
I have visited many museums around the world which permanently offer free entry. Some were full of people and some were totally empty. So, if we conclude that the former are full because the entrance is free and there are no barriers to access, what shall we think about the latter?

Two specific cases come to mind:

In 2011, Mixed Blood Theatre, in Minneapolis, USA, presented its Radical Hospitality initiative, announcing that it would provide free access to all mainstage productions in the following three seasons. The theatre’s artistic director stated that “this is a way to be true to our egalitarian mission, which is to be totally inclusive”. A local radio station asked the public: How big a role do ticket prices play in your choice of entertainment options?  Although some people did say, naturally, that ticket prices were prohibitive (just think of the costs for a family), other people also mentioned that the associated costs are extremely high (parking, food, babysitting, etc.); that they didn´t know what the programme was or where the theatre was situated; that the cultural offer was diverse and there were prices for all purses. So one thing to keep in mind, is that, even when it’s free, it is not really free, people always invest.

In 2013, the Brazilian government launched Vale Cultura, a culture stipend for people earning up to five times the minimum salary. The government presented this initiative as a way “to allow for access and fruition of cultural products and services; to stimulate the visitation of establishments that provide the integration of science, education and culture; and to encourage access to cultural and artistic events and performances”. A number of workers were interviewed at the time and many of them expressed their satisfaction about the government measure.

One of them said: “I’ve never been to the Municipal Theatre. I always thought it is so big, so beautiful, it’s not for me….” She didn’t say she didn’t go because it was expensive, but because the looks of it made her feel it was not a place for her. Now, here’s a real primary barrier.

Admission fees are an issue, of course, for many people, but, in what concerns museums and theatres, it is a primary issue for those who have already the habit of visiting. In 2003, MORI published a report regarding the impact of the abolition of entrance fees in British National Museums. The report confirmed a significant raise in visitor numbers, but it also showed that the majority were visits by people with the same socio-demographic profile or repeat visits, that is, the same people visiting more times. Another report by the Museums Association reached the same conclusions. Free entry is not enough by itself to attract diverse audiences.

I’ve learned that, in what concerns underserved audiences and people without a habit of participation, social, psychological and intellectual barriers have a much stronger impact in their option not to visit that attendance fees. When cultural organizations do not make the effort to reach more diverse audiences (something that doesn’t happen when they simply use their traditional promotional channels, as Colleen Dilen Schneider rightly points out in her article) and, even more importantly, when their contents are incomprehensible and irrelevant for a number of people, underserved or not, free entries do not make a difference. None of us wishes to invest time on things we feel are not worth it, on things we don’t think are addressed to us. This is the effect of the work of culture professionals who do things just for themselves, their peers, their family and friends and their usual visitors. This is why many museums that permanently offer free entry are totally empty.

When Michelle Obama spoke at the inauguration of the new Whitney Museum, she sent a very important message to the museum world: “There are so many kids in this country who look at places like museums and concert halls and other cultural centers and they think to themselves, well, that’s not a place for me, for someone who looks like me, for someone who comes from my neighborhood. In fact, I guarantee you that right now, there are kids living less than a mile from here who would never in a million years dream that they would be welcome in this museum. And growing up on the South Side of Chicago, I was one of those kids myself. So I know that feeling of not belonging in a place like this.”

I do believe it takes more than a free entry to connect to underserved audiences. But because admission fees are also an issue, for a number of people (both served and underserved), it is also very important to follow Colleen Dilen Schneider advise and stop confusing admission in general with affordable access programming. We need to look at things directly, identify the real barriers in each situation and make the special extra effort that it takes to establish a relationship with those who do not know us or think that we are not for them.

One of the people interviewed in 2011 regarding the Radical Hospitality initiative said: “The priority of attending live theatre and live concerts is a huge quality of life issue for my husband and me. (…) People need to choose carefully, but be willing to pay for the incredible commitment and talent that´s required to produce quality, live cultural events. We´re willing to have our checkbook lighter so that our lives are not poorer.” The person who gave this answer is probably not poor. But I believe it to be a question of scale and that the majority of people, within their financial capacities, would say the same should they think that what cultural institutions have to offer is relevant and important for their lives. This is the big challenge for those working in the cultural field.

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