MuseumMinute

Transparency, Perception, and Controversy at the Barnes

Please note: I have not visited the Barnes (however, I hope to visit this summer). If you have, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the new pricing structure.

Today the Barnes Foundation raised their ticket prices. You may have read about it last week.

  • Tickets for adults will now cost $22 from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and $18 from 3 p.m. until closing.
  • Tickets for older visitors will cost $20 from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and $15 from 3 p.m. until closing.
  • For students with ID, $10 (all hours).
  • Admission is free for area art-college students and children under 5, active military personnel, and members.
  • Admission is free the first Sunday of each month.
  • Audio tours and admission to special exhibitions are included with admission.

While the increase is a 22% hike above the previous ticket price (during certain operating hours), that is not what people were/are talking about.

What attracted attention to the price increase was the reason for the change in pricing. An article in the Philadelphia Inquirer stated:

Officials at the gallery on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway said that the increase would generate revenue, but that the main motive was to relieve congestion during high-traffic periods and to increase use of the Barnes audio guide, which now carries injunctions about appropriate gallery behavior.

Barnes President and CEO, Derek Gillman, was quoted, in the same article, saying:

“We’re seeing many more people not familiar . . . with what is proper behavior.” He added that the gallery wanted those additional visitors, but with new gallery goers “we’re seeing more transgressions of people touching things and getting too close” to the art, he said.

Hmm.

The new admission price includes the audio tour, which was previously available for an additional $5 on top of the previous $18 admission price. In addition to providing information about artwork at the museum, the audio tour also cautions visitors against touching art and standing too close to paintings and sculptures.

I’ve read several comments, on different articles, stating that the Barnes “polices” each gallery space with highly visible guards and marked lines on the floor indicating that the visitor should step no further to the artwork. Have you visited? Was this reflective of your experience?

To throw another wrench in this story, the Barnes Foundation has been in its downtown Philadelphia location for about a year (May 19, 2013 will make one year). Why the move? To be more accessible and, in turn, make more money. Why does it matter to this post? The move itself was controversial (I’m sure it still is). However, according to a story on NPR, the move was needed for the Barnes Foundation to survive. Foundation members testified that the Barnes was going broke in Merion, a suburb of Philadelphia.

Again, hmm.

While high traffic periods can be stressful, high attendance should be a welcome “problem” for the Barnes to have. Heavy traffic, at any price, means more revenue. By raising prices – as a source of financial crowd control – is the intent/expectation to target those who may not know and/or understand museum etiquette? Who is most affected by this increase? Does the museum see a direct correlation between the “transgressors” and those who will be affected by the increase? Will visitation decline as a result? Considering they are located in a city with 7.6% unemployment, it’s a possibility. Raising prices to increase revenue is one thing, raising prices to keep a certain clientele out of the Barnes during certain hours is another.  Additionally, I wonder what the attitude is towards Free Sundays. Is there high traffic and are audio tours are included in the experience?

In order to address “proper behavior” in a gallery – I hope the Barnes looks at this as a teachable moment. Moving locations, heck, moving a collection of this caliber, from the suburbs to a downtown urban location provides an opportunity for community programming. Instead of simply saying, “don’t touch the artwork,” explain why – make the museum experience about the visitor  – not the collection. Visitors make the collections viable, not the other way around.

What do you think? Is this a smart move for the Barnes or will it simply move their “peak” time to the afternoon (when prices are reduced), facing the same issue they are dealing with now? Have they priced themselves out? Does the reason for the increased price sound elitist or is it simply a poor choice of words or way to address a larger opportunity?

2 thoughts on “Transparency, Perception, and Controversy at the Barnes

  1. Wow! Where do I start?

    Price wise, I don’t think it’s a deal breaker since one is getting the audio tour with admission. That could have been sold as a benefit and actually a discount if my math is right $18 + $5 = $23 vs $22.

    The problem is, it wasn’t sold that way.

    I’m going to go out on a limb, and say that they weren’t prepared for the increased attendance and diversity that being on Benjamin Franklin Parkway brings.

    Just a quick note – Wikipedia has the population of Merion at 5,000+ with a median household income of ~$103,000….downtown Philly is totally different.

    The price increase does not sound elitist but some of the reasoning for it does.

    Your statement of “Heavy traffic, at any price, means more revenue.” is a double edged sword. Increased traffic impacts all aspects of a museum’s operations, from the custodian, to education staff, admission clerks, wear and tear on floors, benches, etc. And while it does bring in more revenue, it could end of costing more in the long run. Plus as we all know the cost per visitor is greater than what a visitor pays in admission. http://visual.ly/who-pays-museum-tickets

    Another thing the Barnes may not have taken into consideration is whether the increased attendance would continue over time. The Barnes is “new.” There is a very good chance that visitation would drop off some after the first year or two and be closer to where they had anticipated.

    Lastly, I agree that this is a great opportunity for teachable moments at the museum. Although being across the road from The Franklin Institute filled with hands-on science exhibits and a children’s museum in town called the Please Touch Museum, they may be fighting an uphill battle.

    • Thanks for your comment, Ken! I too find it interesting that the increased price (including the audio tour) is discounted ($22) over the previous ticket price ($18) including the additional charge for the audio tour ($5). This could simply be strategy to ensure that people listen to the audio guide and the $1 off is an attempt to make the increase somewhat more palatable. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer article, officials at the Barnes said the audio tours were used by 40% of visitors – not bad. Bundling audio tours in admission will increase visitor usage and has the potential to create evaluation and/or grant application opportunities. They may end up losing funds as a result if visitation peak times shift to the afternoon hours at the $18 rate, with the audio guide included. Only time will tell. What’s unfortunate is the way that the increase was presented – it made it sound as if the visitors are the problem – not that the way the museum currently “does things” needs to be updated/adjusted.

      And, yes. Merion and downtown Philadelphia are different; which according to the NPR article was the reason for the move – a larger, more diverse audience to experience/engage with the collection. And the Barnes collection is stellar.

      Additionally, thanks for sharing the infographic. Do you know if there is an updated version? I’m interested to see results after 2008 versus now. While the cost per visitor may not be equal to admission, for those who charge admission, the revenue stream from attendance provides necessary unrestricted funds versus restricted gift-centric gifts from donors, foundations. Attendance revenue, while not reflective of staff time, is integral to the survival of an institution.

      I think you bring up an interesting point with The Franklin Institute and PTM being so close by – perhaps it’s an opportunity for partnership (which may already be in place – I found a nice hotel package deal featured on visitphilly.com) or a focus on adult-centric programs.

      As always, thanks for reading, Ken!

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