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EDITORIAL: Indianapolis Museum of Art earned its firestorm

December 20, 2014

The Indianapolis Museum of Art has had a rough month, and the arrows it is taking are self-inflicted.

The decision to add an admission charge—by a board determined to bolster IMA’s membership rolls and put the institution on better financial footing—is defensible. But the $18 price point could discourage visits for families on a tight budget and alienate donors who see their gifts as enabling the enjoyment of art by all. The IMA has been free to the public for most of its existence.

The rollout of the change might have gone better had the IMA board of governors and CEO made a direct, well-argued case for the change at the outset. Instead, the IMA announced the fee in a press release with the headline, “IMA announces new campus enhancement plan to improve visitor experience and financial sustainability.”

Not until the second page—almost 900 words into the announcement—does the IMA mention the admission charge. If this decision is so critical to a much-loved institution, why bury the news?

The reaction on social media has been swift and harsh—both to the charge itself and to the IMA’s announcement.

Chairman Tom Hiatt, founding partner of Centerfield Capital, defended the change in an interview with IBJ and in a letter to the editor on the facing page. He said the $18 price is designed to encourage annual memberships, which run $55 for an individual and $75 for a family. He said the museum will offer free hours, low-priced admission for low-income earners, and free admission for school groups. The Virginia B. Fairbanks Art & Nature Park, parts of the IMA grounds, and the IMA gift shop and café will remain free. Hiatt does not expect a dropoff in visitors.

The bottom line, Hiatt argues, is the museum needs to draw down less per year from its $367 million endowment. The additional revenue will help cover maintenance costs. It also covers the entire museum experience—including parking and special exhibits.

But a side effect could be a more-exclusive museum. Those who visit a few times a year might rethink their outings. One of the city’s top attractions will be less accessible to the city it has served for more than a century.

The board and CEO Charles Venable deserve credit for reducing the museum’s annual endowment spend to 6 percent—within range of a 5-percent target.

But they ought to find a way to further strengthen finances in ways that keep the museum accessible to families of all income levels. One possibility: Sell free-admission sponsorships by the month or even week. The sponsor gets signage, a table and a sense of pride that they are enabling community access to an Indianapolis treasure.•

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To comment on this editorial, write to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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