Pay More at Door: Museums Adjust to Hard Times/CSO Strike: A Ban for All Season? | Culture Club | Chicago Reader

Pay More at Door: Museums Adjust to Hard Times/CSO Strike: A Ban for All Season? 

Compared to performing arts groups, museums recover only a tiny percentage of their costs from the people who enjoy their services. Look for admission fees to rise as government and corporate donations dwindle.

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Pay More at Door: Museums Adjust to Hard Times

The crowds aren't what they used to be at the Museum of Science and Industry. Through early September attendance had plummeted 43 percent to 1.6 million visitors, compared to 2.8 million during the same period in 1990. The 1991 figure looks even worse compared to the same period in 1989, when 3.5 million people went through the doors.

One reason for the drop, say museum officials, is the mandatory admission fee put into place last June 10: $5 for adults and $2 for children from 5 to 12 years of age. (School groups, however, continue to be admitted free.) The fees, the first general admission in the museum's history, came out of a study that sought new sources of revenue to upgrade the museum's physical plant and arrange existing exhibits in thematic zones. The fees also are a reflection of the increasingly felt need at all museums to pass along more of their operating costs to visitors.

MSI executives say the switch to a paid admission system has also resulted in a more accurate count of attendance and, consequently, a lower number of "real" visitors. "Before the admission fee was instituted," explains spokeswoman Deborah Lucien, "People may have stopped at the museum just to use the restrooms on the way to the lakefront, but they would have been counted as visitors by the clickers at the door."

Relative to the city's other major museums, the Museum of Science and Industry arrived late at the decision to charge admission. The Field Museum of Natural History did so as far back as 1894, when it cost adults 25 cents and children 10 cents to enter. The Field currently charges a mandatory $3 for adults and $2 for children under 17. The Art Institute began charging admission in 1971 and currently has a "suggested" adult admission of $6; figures indicate that on average visitors actually pay somewhere between $3.50 and $3.75. With the opening of the Oceanarium exhibit last April, the Shedd Aquarium has one of the city's highest mandatory admissions: $7 for adults and $5 for children who wish to visit the Oceanarium and the regular aquarium exhibits.

Though some museum visitors may balk at the prospect of any admission charge, those fees actually constitute a surprisingly small portion of the museums' operating budgets. At the Art Institute, the combined total of general admissions and fees for special exhibits amounted to $3.3 million in the fiscal year that ended June 30, only about 7 percent of the museum's operating budget of $46 million. At the Field Museum admission fees generally account for about 11 percent of annual operating costs, while the Shedd Aquarium's admission fees represented about 24 percent of its budget in 1990.

In marked contrast, well-managed not-for-profit performing arts institutions usually generate 60 percent or more of their operating revenue from ticket sales, which is one reason why ticket prices for dance, theater, and musical events are so much higher than museum admission fees. But museum executives contend that most of their institutions would swiftly turn into deserted wastelands if they were forced to pass along the same hefty chunk of their operating costs to visitors. "One of our missions is to educate people," explains Jim Croft, the Field Museum's vice-president of finance and museum services, "so we have to get people into the museum."

The fact that major museums rely heavily on contributions and grants is a matter of increasing concern and attention among museum executives. In tough economic times development directors must be ready to replace funds that suddenly dry up. "We have to be as astute as we possibly can be," says Croft. The Field and other museums are trying to maximize revenue from every possible source. The Art Institute, pleased with the success of its museum shop, has opened up permanent satellite gift shops in Oak Brook and at 900 N. Michigan. Those shops may not bring people into the museum, but they will generate income.

In the past, the Museum of Science and Industry has counted on income from its museum stores, restaurants, and related "sales activities" to generate about a third of its operating budget of $25 million, with most of the rest coming from government grants and other contributions. Lucien says it is too early to know how much money the museum can expect to generate from admission fees or what a realistic yearly attendance may turn out to be under the new policy. But it is clear that the financial situation in the museum world is changing, and no matter how successful museums may be raising money from other sources, visitors must be prepared to shoulder more of the cost of keeping these institutions open and financially sound.

CSO Strike: A Ban for All Season?

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra strike has entered its third week with no sign of a settlement. A source on the nine-member musicians' negotiating committee said there was little or no movement on the key issue of health insurance at the meeting a week ago between the two sides, which also was attended by a federal mediator. Another meeting was scheduled for late this week. CSO executive director Henry Fogel kept to himself any plans he might have had to resolve the strike. Meanwhile picket lines have gone up around Orchestra Hall, and the building's stagehands are honoring them, which makes it unlikely that anyone will be able to use the hall until the strike is settled. Looming on the horizon is the finale of the orchestra's 100th anniversary celebration on October 18, a glitzy dinner and concert event with tickets priced between $475 and $1,200. A CSO spokeswoman said she did not know when a decision would be made to cancel the major fund-raising event or whether it might be rescheduled.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven D. Arazmus.

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