Look at it this way, if you’re the Indianapolis Museum of Art: A lot of people really care about you.
That’s probably the only way to think about the vociferous blowback that’s greeted the IMA’s announced plan to impose an admission fee of $18.
Up until now, the city’s art museum has been free for all but one year since it was founded in 1883. This constitutes a remarkable history, one that places the IMA in a special position relative to its hometown.
Indianapolis has never been a truly big city, but that’s not to say that it didn’t, at one time, have a large sense of itself. In the late 1800’s and through the Gilded Age, Indy was populated with a large class of entrepreneurs who created an impressive amount of wealth and, with it, sought to make their city a kind of provincial cultural capital, similar to those found in Europe.
Part of this process involved the creation of cultural institutions that would be free and open to everyone. In those days, learning about the arts was considered part of what went into becoming an upwardly mobile citizen. Looking at paintings by old masters, listening to music by classical composers, reading books by famous authors was part of a civilizing process that not only led to the self-improvement of individuals, but an enhanced community.
This, of course, became a rich subject for satire. The striving and pretensions of would-be sophisticates is still a target-rich environment.
But there was also something democratic and downright American about the idea that the arts and ideas could be for everyone, and that a cultural institution like a museum of art might be considered part of a city’s commonwealth — something, that is, to be shared equally by all citizens.
That, in fact, is a large part of what’s made city living worthwhile. If they were noisier, dirtier, and more crowded, cities also had magical amenities, like art museums, libraries and parks, where you could find yourself in ways unavailable anywhere else.
To some extent, it’s still this way. But there’s no denying the cache once associated with “the fine arts” has been vaporized by a century’s worth of mass communications, media and entertainment. I mean, now you can watch a movie on your phone!
Cultural institutions, rather than community landmarks, have become part of a larger leisure time marketplace. As such, they have been forced to reevaluate what they do — and for whom.
In deciding to charge admission, the IMA is following a script adopted by most other museums. Its leaders have doubtless run the numbers and calculated some kind of monetary benefit.
But in becoming more like their peers, they are also making themselves less distinctive and, in the process, less a part of what makes Indianapolis special. The IMA’s free admission policy defined art as part of the abundance of this city’s life, a treasure anyone might share.
Charging admission makes it just another consumer choice.