To the Indianapolis Museum of Art: Way to shoot yourself in the foot

Last week, the Indianapolis Museum of Art announced that admission to the museum and its gorgeous grounds will no longer be free starting in April. It will cost $18 for adults, $10 for children.

Entering the IMA
IMA welcome pavilion

It’s neither unusual nor unreasonable for a museum to charge. But the IMA bungled this announcement, slathering it in suspicious PR doublespeak. They are also making this enormous price jump too suddenly, leaving a feeling of sticker shock and pricing visits out of reach for many.

In all, this announcement has damaged community goodwill. I think they just shot themselves in the foot. I think they’ll lose visitors to the point where the admission fee doesn’t generate the revenue they seek.

In a press release, the IMA announced this change as a “campus enhancement plan to improve the visitor experience and financial sustainability.” The IMA’s admission fee appears to cover both the museum and grounds. They will reconfigure access to require all visitors to pass through the museum building’s welcome center to build “long-lasting relationships with IMA guests.”

Oldfields, on the grounds

Hogwash. News reports say that the museum is using too large a portion of its endowment for operations, and the IMA needs to correct that so the endowment can serve long term. It’s obvious that money entirely drives this decision, and that requiring all visitors to enter through the welcome center is how they will collect admission fees.

It would have been better for the IMA to just own that. They should have said plainly that they need to charge admission to ensure the museum’s long-term operation, and skipped the “campus enhancement” and “long-lasting relationship” nonsense. Nobody’s falling for it. Transparency engenders trust; bad PR-speak makes everybody think you’re hiding something.

On the bridge
$18 to ride through? Seriously?

But more importantly, the IMA appears not to have thought through the emotional impact of this tall admission fee. Cries of elitism and exclusion pepper the comments sections on every news story posted about this change. The IMA was not going to entirely avoid that even if admission had been set at $5; it takes quite an adjustment to pay for anything that had been free. But after you cut through their invective, many of those commenters have a good point: what had been a wonderful free family outing is now mighty expensive, and has been priced out of reach for many.

It is clear that this change will cost the IMA its most casual patronage, those who visited once in a while because it was something to do and it didn’t cost anything. But how many people who really appreciate the art and the grounds will no longer go, either out of principle or because they just can’t afford it now?

LIttle bridge
The IMA is a great place for a stroll

Perhaps the IMA wishes to drive their non-casual patronage toward memberships, which cost $55 per year for individuals and $75 per year for families. With a membership, a family of four can visit anytime for $19 more than one visit at admission price.

I’m going to buy a membership, even though I don’t like how the IMA is handling this. I visit the IMA a dozen times a year, usually just to walk the grounds and take photographs. I would hate to not do that anymore, and I can afford a membership.

But I wonder what would happen if the IMA instead set admission at $5, which would avoid this sticker shock. I’m betting they’d lose far fewer visitors up front. I also think they might make up on volume what they lose on that $18 fee. If it didn’t, they could raise admission a buck or two every year until they find that sweet spot.

I think the IMA has hurt itself. I hope, for the IMA’s continued good fortune, that enough people like me buy memberships to make up for the loss of visitors for whom a day at the museum is now too expensive.


18 responses to “To the Indianapolis Museum of Art: Way to shoot yourself in the foot”

  1. davisr66 Avatar

    I totally agree with every word.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar


  2. hmunro Avatar

    I’ve never even been to Indianapolis, but I’m foaming at the mouth! :) You’ve hit on a point so many organizations seem to be missing these days, Jim: Just tell the truth. Don’t try to bamboozle the public with a bunch of PR mumbo-jumbo. Charging almost $20 will not make it “a more relevant and memorable experience for guests” — just more expensive and exclusive, because that’s a chunk of change! I don’t wish the IMA any ill for following some PR consultant’s bad advice, but I do hope their “strategy” flops so they’re forced to reconsider a plan that’s better for the museum AND the community. (For what it’s worth, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts is free, but it has a very active and loyal membership, and from what I’ve observed most visitors make a “free-will” donation as they walk through the door. No one leaves feeling fleeced, and the folks who are truly in financial distress can still enjoy the magnificent collection.) Anyway … thank you for writing about this. I hope your voice of reason will help reverse the IMA’s ill-conceived “pricing strategy.”

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Several museums analogous to the IMA are free; many others charge. I don’t have a problem with the IMA charging. Well, that’s not entirely true. I think the grounds should remain free. 95% of the times I visit, I go to walk and photograph the grounds. I’m not happy to pay for that. But I will, because that place does have value to me and I can afford it.

      I wonder if this decision points to some systemic or long-term problems at the IMA with funding.

      1. hmunro Avatar

        I also found myself wondering about the IMA’s long-term sustainability, Jim. Such a drastic decision smacks of panic and desperation, doesn’t it? Well … it’ll be interesting to hear how it develops, if you choose to follow this story.

  3. davidvanilla Avatar

    Spot-on thinking, and excellent presentation. I wrote a short paragraph and posted it a few minutes after I heard the announcement. Your logic and presentation validates what I was thinking.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      You make a good point about how much things like this cost today when you factor inflation over umpty-ump years ago. When I started going to rock concerts in the late 80s, tickets were typically $20; now they’re $100. Movies were $4; now they’re $15. Seriously?

  4. pesoto74 Avatar

    I guess I am used to going to things like this in Chicago where it seems like just about everything costs at least $20. And then there is usually a stiff fee for parking too. In light of that these fees don’t sound unreasonable although it probably is a lot to shallow when it has been free for so long. I would guess that some people from out of town who have been coming for visits and haven’t heard the news will be unhappy when they show up expecting free admission. Still I would guess that over time people that value the museum will pay up and get used to it.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Sure, I’ve been to the Chicago museums and know they cost bigtime. I used to always drive to my parents’ in South Bend and take the train to Chicago to avoid having to park my car.

      The IMA’s admission charge includes parking, by the way. And compared to other similar museums that charge, $18 isn’t out of line. It’s just out of line when you consider that most visitors don’t go to museums in other cities and have been used to it being free for decades.

  5. Steve Miller Avatar
    Steve Miller

    Let’s not mention the last time IMA decided to charge admission… killed attendance and engendered ill will among its endowment base. That’s why it was driven to dip into the funds that were to provide for long-term operation. Those who do not learn from history…

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      New CEO, new ideas, I guess. I gather from news reports and blogs that the last CEO, upon retreating from the admission-fee policy and increasing reliance on the endowment for operations, created quite a financial mess.

  6. Bob Dungan Avatar

    The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond Virginia used a different tack. Grounds are free as are all regular exhibitions. You have to pay a fee to see special traveling exhibitions and for using parking garage. If you are a member you get free parking and free tickets to the traveling exhibitions. This way you can park on the street visit the grounds and see 90% of the museum for free. Ultimately money drives everything because it costs a lot to run a museum and maintain nice grounds. It sound like it could have been handled better.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      That actually is exactly what the IMA does now: charge to park in the garage (limited surface parking is free), charge for special exhibits. Apparently, it didn’t work as well as they hoped.

  7. Dani Avatar

    Speak it, brother, speak it!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Can I get an amen? :-)

  8. Neil Kesterson Avatar

    Hey Jim, I just went there for the first time in January 2014. I thought is was one of the best museums in this area. My daughter was has an art degree, so it’s really hard to impress her. I’ve been recommending everyone I know to go to it. Bummer. $5 or even $8 is reasonable and pretty status quo. But as we all know, art doesn’t pay.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      That’s a fact, art doesn’t pay. It’ll be interesting to watch how all this shakes out when it happens next year.

  9. […] cost $18 to set foot on the grounds. I wrote a scathing blog post criticizing this decision then; read it here. But for those two years, I visited all the time and made dozens of lovely photographs. So many […]

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