Beginning Memorial Day weekend, general admission to Joslyn Art Museum will be free, but don't expect other Omaha museums to follow suit.
The Omaha Children's Museum and the Durham Museum depend on admissions for as much as a third of their annual revenue, said representatives from both museums.
In contrast, Joslyn's admission fee brings in only between 2 and 4 percent of its revenue.
A three-year grant from the Sherwood Foundation Sherwood Foundation — combined with the belief that Joslyn could make up for lost revenue when the grant expired — allowed Joslyn officials to reveal Wednesday that the museum would end entry fees on May 25.
Cheers and sustained applause greeted museum director Jack Becker's announcement in the museum's Fountain Court.
Museum officials said they made the move to draw more people and make art accessible to everyone in the city.
It's “a great day for Joslyn and a great day for Omaha,” Joslyn Board of Governors Chairman Gary Gates told the crowd.
Officials did not disclose the amount of the grant from the Omaha-based foundation, headed by chairwoman Susie Buffett.
Visitors at the museum on Wednesday afternoon were enthusiastic when they heard the news.
“That's awesome. It's wonderful for the public,” said Joslyn visitor Patty Gibler of Council Bluffs, who was viewing the collections when the announcement was made. She said she comes every few years and has taken classes at Joslyn.
“I don't mind paying to come,” she said. “But I think people who hesitated in the past will be willing to come now. They may become lifelong visitors.”
Omahan Tanner Lindbloom also was at the museum on Wednesday, treating himself to a day off work on his birthday. The 20-something systems engineer said this was the first time he had visited Joslyn since high school.
Now, he said, “I'll definitely come more often.”
For the rest of this year, the museum will not charge for special traveling exhibits, but it will in 2014. When the grant expires, the Joslyn will determine how to make up admission fee revenues.
The museum will continue to sell memberships that offer special perks. Becker said he thinks the museum may see a short-term loss in membership sales, but he isn’t overly worried about the long term.
A recent survey of Joslyn members found that 65 percent joined because they support the museum.
Becker also cited the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, where memberships declined slightly the first year or two that admission was free, but where memberships since have nearly doubled.
Free admission has been Becker’s goal since he came to Joslyn in 2010.
"He brought his vision to me when he first started," said Kristin Williams, director of community initiatives at the Sherwood Foundation. "It was a vision we could share."
Becker saw other museums successfully make the transition — notably the Nelson Atkins in Kansas City in 2001, the Baltimore Museum of Art in 2006, the Indianapolis Museum of Art in 2007 and the Bronx Museum of the Arts last year. Most recently, the Dallas Museum of Art went free in January. Lincoln's Sheldon Museum of Art and the Des Moines Art Center also are free.
In fact, nearly half of America's art museums have committed to making their collections available to the public at no cost, Becker said.
“It's exciting for Omaha and makes the work they do there so accessible to the community,” said Lindy Hoyer, executive director of the Omaha Children's Museum, when she heard Joslyn's news on Wednesday.
She said her museum, which has a different mission in serving and educating Omaha-area children with interactive exhibits, couldn't afford to do the same. At least 30 percent of the Children Museum's revenue comes from admissions.
The same is true for Omaha's Durham Museum.
The Durham Museum might consider offering free admission in the future, but cannot do so now because of the way the museum is structured financially, said Shawna Forsberg, a Durham spokeswoman.
She said earned income, which includes admissions, memberships and gift shop sales, accounts for about one-third of the operating budget.
“Admission is crucial to us,'' Forsberg said.
Going to free admission is “fantastic for the community, for the state,” said Christine Anagnos, executive director of the Association of Art Museum Directors in New York City. “(Art) museums are trending that way: St. Louis, Minneapolis, Baltimore. ... They're looking for new ways for reaching more segments of the community, donors as well as the general public.”
Free admission isn't really new at the Joslyn. When Sarah Joslyn opened the museum named for her late husband in 1931, she intended it to be a place of free art for everyone to enjoy.
It stayed free until 1965, when the board instituted a 25-cent admission charge. It has grown over time to $8.
“She gave Joslyn Art Museum to Omaha for the purpose of serving the entire community as an educational and cultural resource,” Becker said.
Last year's attendance at Joslyn was 142,612, up about 25 percent over 2011. That ranked Joslyn behind the Durham Museum's 2012 attendance of 187,844; Lauritzen Gardens, which had 169,534 visitors last year; and the Children's Museum, which drew 253,250 visitors.
The museum is counting on the free admission to bring more people from more parts of the city through Joslyn's doors.
“It's all about accessibility for our constituents and the importance of the arts for the community,” Becker said.
The free general admission includes all regular visits to the museum's permanent collection galleries, public spaces, cafe and gift shop; self-guided, docent-guided and school tours; parking; Wi-Fi throughout the museum; events such as Family Day; and some lectures.
Both Becker and the Sherwood Foundation are sure the museum can make up the lost revenue in other ways once the grant is gone.
Membership fees, meanwhile, will remain $45 individual and $60 family/dual, with certain discounts available. And membership will still have its perks.
Major exhibitions that require tickets next year will be free to members. Memberships also will include discounts for guests of members; members-only weekends and select members-only weekdays; deeper discounts on fee-based events and programs, classes and camps, the museum shop and the cafe; invitations to special member-appreciation events; and a subscription to the Joslyn Now magazine.
Joslyn has some big exhibitions yet this year, including “Renoir to Chagall: Paris and the Allure of Color,” opening June 8, and “Legacy: The Emily Fisher Landau Collection” from the Whitney Museum of American Art, opening Sept. 28. In 2014, adults will be charged $10 for the February show “Poseidon and the Sea: Myth, Cult and Daily Life,” but children 17 and younger still will be free.
Museum and Sherwood officials also said the move may well spark an increase in philanthropic donations. That seems to be the norm for art museums that do away with admission prices, said the foundation's Williams.
That was one of the reasons the foundation felt it could make the three-year commitment to the museum, Williams said. The other was the “equity and access” for an underserved part of the community — or Sarah Joslyn's vision of art for everyone.
“It's important to us that free admission be an embedded part of the Joslyn culture, that in another 40 years it will still be free,” Williams said.
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