"Good news at the IMA

This city was treated to some good news last week when the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s new president and CEO, Max Anderson, announced that the museum will reinstate its policy of free general admission in January 2007. The IMA could not have sent this community a better Thanksgiving present.

In the first place, this sort of thing hardly ever happens. Once they’re instituted, admission charges and other types of user fees usually never go away. Rather, they become ingrained in an organization’s way of doing business. As time goes by, the question becomes not whether a fee is necessary, but when to raise it — and by how much. Bravo to Anderson for having both the guts and the vision to change course on the IMA’s policy before it became second nature.

This took guts because the tendency of museums across the country has been to see themselves as competing with all other entertainment options, from movies to theme parks. So museums, including the IMA, have undertaken major rebuilding campaigns to spruce themselves up and tricked themselves out with all manner of multimedia attractions. This is called being market-driven. Free admission doesn’t have status in a market-driven situation because the market says you get what you pay for. In this light, whatever is free, by definition, is worth less than something with a price.

No wonder then that so many museums today seem intent on defining themselves as akin to the luxury goods you see advertised in slick magazines. It now costs $20 to stroll through the galleries at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, $15 to visit the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and $12 to get into the Art Institute of Chicago. Accompanying this upscale sticker shock is the mumbled rationalization that a family of four can still visit the collection for less than it will cost them to see the latest Harry Potter movie or pro sports spectacle — a claim no less ineffectual for its being true.

The problem for museums is that they have missions — reasons for being — that go above and beyond market considerations. As museum authority Stephen E. Weil has written, “Whereas almost everybody understands that the museum that wholly ignores market considerations may lose the means to survive, it ought equally be well understood that the museum that turns completely away from considerations of mission may no longer have any reason to survive.” Museums and other community institutions have traditionally been important, not just because of what they hold, but because they are places where the community can literally find itself. In our museums, parks, zoos and libraries we experience the city — that is, each other — in settings that are relaxing, inspiring and fun. This is what is meant by a word like commonwealth. Admission fees, no matter how modest or defensible, create barriers to this.

It took nerve for Anderson to fly in the face of his profession’s trend. But I don’t think his decision to reinstate free general admission to the IMA is risky. In making the IMA free again, Anderson sees an economics of abundance trumping those of scarcity. Instead of clinging to the notion that something’s value is determined by its cost, he is betting that, given access to a great product, people will find supporting the IMA irresistible. There is plenty of evidence to support this view.

Walt Disney comes to mind. After Disney made a fortune for himself with animated movies, people told him he was nuts to dive into television, an as-yet unproven medium. “Why go on TV,” they asked, arguing for scarcity over abundance. “You’ll be giving your product away.” For years, the Disney show was a money-losing proposition. But Disney was willing to give it away because it put his brand in millions of homes across America and built an insatiable demand for the theme parks that would become the capstone of the Disney empire.

Or what about my beloved-beyond-reason Chicago Cubs? People today are amazed that a team that hasn’t won a World Series in almost 100 years can continue to draw millions of people to its historic ballpark every season and command a loyal fan base spanning the nation. That’s because from the 1950s through the ’70s, the Cubs broadcast every home game on local station WGN. Kids grew up with the games as part of their everyday lives, whether they bought a ticket or not. Most teams thought that televising home games was giving it away (to this day the Indy 500 wears this idea like a bad toupee). The economics of abundance helped make the Cubs a Chicago icon.

Finally, there’s the Worldwide Web. Although there are people in the telecommunications industry who would love to change it, there is no question but that the abundance of free information found on the Web is changing how we think, relate, distribute and experience ideas, products and each other. Indeed, the power of the Web may be so great that it turns traditional value systems upside down, making what’s scarce seem more suspect than desirable.

So here’s to the IMA and the economics of abundance. And a happy Thanksgiving to us all.




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