What if a major Houston museum raised its ticket prices overnight, and nobody noticed? That’s just about what happened on September 3 when the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston quietly announced that it was raising adult ticket prices from $13 to $15, from $8 to $10 for seniors, and from $6 to $7.50 for students (the museum also raised the age below which kids get in free from 5 to 12). It was the third across-the-board price hike since January 2012, and while the earlier increases received wide attention in the Houston media, this latest increase seems to have caught most of the city’s arts writers snoozing, myself included. The exception was Arts and Culture Texas, which announced the change in its October issue, and whose visual arts editor Devon Britt-Darby criticized the higher prices on Twitter and Facebook. In a magazine editorial, Britt-Darby argued that raising admission prices amounted to “segregating by class.”
Before 2012, an adult ticket to the MFAH cost $7, meaning that prices have more than doubled in less than two years. When asked about the repeated price hikes, MFAH director Gary Tinterow noted that there hadn’t been any increases in ticket or membership prices between 2000 and 2012. Over that same period (FY 2000 to FY 2013), the museum’s core operating budget almost doubled from $26 to $49 million, making it necessary to raise more revenue, according to Tinterow. Last year, the museum spent about $10 million of its budget on exhibitions, more than all but a few art museums in the country.
Tinterow said that admission receipts cover only 3 percent of the museum’s operating budget (when memberships are factored in, the percentage rises to 10 percent), and that the museum’s true cost is approximately $145 per visitor. But if admission receipts are truly “a drop in the bucket,” as Tinterow told me, why not make general admission free, as the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA) recently did, and which has been longtime policy for Houston’s other major art museums, the Menil Collection and the Contemporary Art Museum Houston? After all, the MFAH is one of the richest museums in the world, with an estimated endowment of around a billion dollars—although it should be noted that the revenue from $400 million of that sum is earmarked for art purchases. Even now, 39 percent of MFAH patrons visit the museum for free, whether through Free Thursdays, Lunch & Look (free admission with a meal from a food truck or Café Express every day between noon and 2), free weekends for kids 18 and under with a Houston Public Library card, or free admission all week for kids 12 and under.
A prominent figure in the Houston art world told me that the MFAH was making a mistake in raising prices. “I think, for an institution that calls itself a place for all people, that is trying to increase diversity, this is a big roadblock,” he said. “I know people who say they don’t go, or that they only go on Thursdays.”
One of those people is local artist Lee Wright, who says he nearly always goes to the MFAH on Thursdays, or on the first weekend of every month, when Bank of America customers get in free. Of course, free days are the most popular and crowded, so for certain exhibitions that Wright wants to study in-depth, he’ll fork over the 15 bucks.
UH art historian Sandra Zalman said that museums often charge a fee because the public views free events as less valuable. For example, she said, the Metropolitan Museum in New York posts suggested fees, although everyone has to pay something (it could be as little as penny).
According to Tinterow, making admission free would force the museum to cut its budget by 10 percent, leading to staff layoffs and fewer exhibitions. He also said that high ticket prices encouraged people to buy museum memberships, which start at $45 and offer unlimited visits.
The Houston art world figure, who asked to remain anonymous, said that the MFAH is out of step with other Houston and Texas art museums. “I just think the effort is in the wrong direction—more and more elitist,” he said. “It’s making it harder for ordinary people to see art.”
When asked whether the MFAH will be raising prices again anytime soon, Tinterow would only say that “we will be looking carefully at our expenses and our revenue going forward.”