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.
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.”
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.
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?
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.