Galleries: what do we mean by “free”?


Some interesting thoughts on admission fees for Galleries from Charles Saatchi, writing in the Guardian.

I am a strong believer in the idea of “free admission” to galleries. The article discusses the extortionate prices currently being charged for temporary exhibitions. The most expensive ticket for the current Hockney exhibition at the Royal Academy is £15.50. A family of 4 (2x non gift-aid adults and 2x teenagers) would cost, at its cheapest, £36. Consider that on top of a light snack and a coffee and possibly a copy of the catalogue (£29.95 or £60 hardback) and you’d be looking at little change from £100. Put on top of this the current cost of a return ticket for the same family with a railcard to London from, say, Hockney’s home town of Bridlington you would be looking at somewhere between £176 and £462 for a day trip.

At these prices it is hardly suprising that most families would probably choose not to travel to the capital to see this incredible exhibition.

The Alice in Wonderland exhibition at Tate Liverpool was a more reasonably priced £7.20 for an adult, but this is still a large ask for visitors. The exhibition, which closed at the weekend with record visitor figures, was a beautiful examination of the impact of Alice on generations of artists. The problem with these “blockbuster” shows is that you can’t always see the work, because although you have paid, so has everyone else. You are not guaranteed to be able to see the work, much less engage on any deeper level.

Fantastic then to find an exhibition and collection that is free. The next exhibition at The Hepworth Wakefield opens on 11 February 2012. It is free, as is access to the wonderful collections. GO! ENJOY!! Have a meal in the cafe, buy some memento in the shop! The same family ticket (from London this time) will still cost you between £280 and £423 but why not make a weekend of it and go to the Miro exhibition which opens in March 2012 at YSP. Sadly, in the current economic situation, this is out of the reach of a lot of families who will be looking to reduce spend. However if you live near a museum or art gallery, particularly outside London, you should go, and, if you know anyone who’s never been, take them with you.

The admission charge experiment undertaken under the last Conservative government had disastrous consequences on visitor numbers at the V&A: Speaking on BBC Gloucestershire, incoming MA president Vanessa Trevelyan said: “I worked at the V&A when they were free and they brought in a charge and their visitor numbers fell by 40 per cent, and that’s a fairly standard percentage fall if you’re introducing a charge to a museum that’s hitherto been free.”

In 2004 Sir Neil Chalmers, then Director of the Natural History Museum, said: ‘Realistically we need an extra £3-5 million in funding from the Government every year and, if that is not forthcoming, it may mean that we have to reconsider our free admission policy.”

In times of austerity, more than any other time, we need the arts and culture. It helps us to see life differently, can offer solace, laughter, contemplation, education, and well-being. Arts organisations need your support so get out there and try spending at least £5 each time you visit.

The trick for organisations is to convert free visitor spend into alternative funding stream. To maximise the amount of spend per visitor through donations, cafe visits, retail sales and event attendance. This is much easier if you have a large, high profile institution, but the challenge remains for all organisations, not least the smaller, less obvious museums and galleries. The trick here is to balance attracting visitors, getting them through the door, and then encouraging sales. A good example of how to do this would be the Art in Yorkshire brand and app. As individual galleries you are unlikely to spend much on marketing and publicity, but get together, with support from the Tate and Welcome to Yorkshire and visitor numbers increase, donations increase, sales increase. The future clearly lies in partnership.

“To charge or not to charge?

The introduction of free entry at national museums has re-ignited a broader debate about the pros and cons of charging. This section examines some of the arguments on both sides.

Perhaps the most compelling argument in favour of charging is the quality of the best charging museums. The independent museums sector relies on charging. Many of our best-loved and most successful museums would not have been developed had they not been able to generate income from charging. Many charging museums have attracted large, and quite respectably diverse, audiences: among the English national museums, the Natural History Museum had a more diverse audience than some free museums. Charging acts as a spur to make museums more responsive to the needs of their visitors – more innovative and more attractive – since they have to compete with other charging attractions.

Proponents of charging can rightly argue that many comparable, publicly-funded venues and cultural activities aren’t free. Swimming is good for our health, but we have to pay to use public swimming pools. Theatres and concert halls can claim an educational role, but tickets to plays and concerts are much more expensive than a museum visit.

Moreover, the data on the changing profile of visitors since free entry was introduced serves to remind us that admission charges are only one barrier to access – and arguably not the most significant one. As things stand, if governments subsidise free entry to museums, it is the better off that benefit most.

But the arguments against charging are at least as compelling. Museums are perhaps best compared to libraries, rather than ‘day out’ venues, because they are about learning, as well as about enjoyment. This means that the ideal way to experience them is by ‘dropping in’ for a short time. They don’t offer a simple, linear experience which only needs to be absorbed once. They are stimulating, thoughtprovoking resources to which visitors can return again and again.

Free access also enables people to use museums in a different way. If museums are free, people can use them to meet friends or as a place to rest or think: free museums can be important civic and social spaces. And while admission charges may not be the only barrier to the less well-off, they are nevertheless a significant barrier.

Removing charges clearly does encourage some less well-off people to visit.


The Museums Association believes that publicly-funded museums should be provided with enough support for access to their core collections to be free. MA were energetic supporters of the campaign for free entry to national museums. It’s good that, since free entry was introduced at the national museums, more people have enjoyed them more often. But free entry is not a panacea, and charging is not wrong in itself: ‘free museums good, charging museums bad’ is an absurd distortion.

Fifteen months on from the reintroduction of free entry at the national museums, it is perhaps time to draw a line under the issue, and for the debate to move on. Free entry should not dominate the thinking of the government – or of industry professionals – to the exclusion of everything else. In the end, it is the quality and character of what is inside that will bring non-visitors through the doors – at both free and charging museums.”


2 Responses to “Galleries: what do we mean by “free”?”

  1. 1 James

    The YSP has raised the price of parking for 3 hours or more, to coincide with the headline grabbing Miro exhibition, to £8. This is on top of an increase last year from £4 to £5. So in one year, the price of parking has doubled. The Yorkshire Sculpture Park still bills itself as free but there’s now a nasty shock for visitors to discover when they find what it costs to park there.

    • I have to agree that that seems an enormous increase, but I guess with four people in a car it still works out at £2 each to see an incredible resource. As a whole day out compared to say Alton Towers, or a trip to the cinema it still seems like good value, but I do agree with you that it puts people off, especially those on low incomes, and especially when we all seem to have less money to spend. Unfortunately organisations are being forced to find new income streams in the face of increased overheads, falling subsidy, and a need to produce blockbuster shows to attract even more visitors.

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