HARTFORD — The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, in a move to open its arms to the city and become a place for its diverse communities to interact, is instituting free admission to Hartford residents every day it's open, starting Wednesday, Aug. 24.
Thomas J. Loughman, the museum's new director and CEO, told The Courant that he proposed the "Wadsworth Welcome" strategy to embrace citizens of the city who may not be able to afford the $15 general admission. "We have very good participation from Hartford residents in the Atheneum's life, but it's so skewed, such a higher number on the days when we are free," Loughman said.
"I believe that there's a great power in owning the statistical data in our own city. That disparity we need to own. It's about social equity and it's about inclusion," said Loughman, who began his duties Feb. 1. "Many of the people who live in our area ... still believe that an art museum is not for them, that that's a place for rich people. The message is, 'it belongs to you.' It's not my museum. It's this community's museum."
According to the most recent figures from the state and the U.S. Census, the median annual household income in Hartford is $29,319, the lowest of all the state's 169 municipalities, with 34.4 percent living in poverty. The census data cites the median income in the state overall as $69,899.
The Atheneum's most recent annual report, from December 2015, puts its annual revenues at $19,752,125, with admissions making up $225,427 of that, less than 1.2 percent. According to Atheneum spokeswoman Amanda Young, 23 percent of museum visitors are Hartford residents. She added that about 38 percent of Hartford visitors come when admission was required; the rest come when it is free.
Many museums with free programs depend on corporate, foundation or governmental funding to make up the revenue shortfall, but the Atheneum is not doing that, Young said. She added the Atheneum, the country's oldest public art museum, will study the success of "Wadsworth Welcome" in June 2017 to see if free admission is having the desired effect.
Loughman said his goal is to make the museum a "convener," connecting the different communities of the racially and ethnically diverse city with the museum and with each other. "Our aim is to connect with everybody. I'm trying to remove barriers," he said. He called the museum "an internationalist project that requires every attempt at widest participation."
Loughman said his new strategy is an expansion on the Community Engagement Initiative begun by his predecessor, Susan Talbott, in 2009. That initiative included launching the monthly Second Saturdays program that brings families from all municipalities into the museum free of charge for hands-on activities. Since its inception, 40,000 people have attended Second Saturdays events, according to Young.
Talbott, who now heads the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia, says she is especially proud that Second Saturdays drew a diverse crowd. "One time an educator told me that she heard eight languages being spoken," Talbott said.
Racial, Economic Inclusion
The feasibility of eliminating admission prices has been a hot topic in the museum world for years. Advocates argue that inclusivity should be a primary goal and that, for most museums, admission is a small percentage of annual revenue. Others worry about the industry's financial stability. Some fret that admitting people free sends a message that museum visits have no value.
Before engaging "Wadsworth Welcome," Loughman sought advice from peers, including Julia Marciari-Alexander, director of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. That museum and the Baltimore Museum of Art eliminated admission prices in 2006, in a program sponsored by the city and county.
"We perpetuate this notion that this art was made for elite people if [admission is charged], and only for elite people," Marciari-Alexander said. "But in reality, these works of art came here for the benefit of the public."
Another adviser was Brian Kennedy of the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio, which doesn't charge admission. Kennedy told The Courant that museums nationwide, whose staffs he referred to as "part of a white cultural infrastructure," should focus on inclusion as a means of acknowledging the growing racial diversity of their cities. This would move toward a goal of a more diverse visitor base and eventually a more diverse staff, he said, since visitors often become volunteers, docents and employees.
"The only book an art museum director needs to read today is the national census," Kennedy said. "The nature of our population has changed dramatically. You can never become diverse if you don't seek to become inclusive. ... The reality to change is before every museum director in the country."
The Atheneum's board is excited about "Wadsworth Welcome," said president Henry R. Martin. "When he communicated at a board meeting in the spring that ... we had gotten our ducks in a row to allow it to happen, the board stood up with enthusiastic applause," Martin said.
Marta Bentham, a board member and city resident, was stunned by Loughman's announcement. "When he brought it up at the board meeting, I started to cry," she said. "I see all of these families who want to come to the museum. They have nothing else to do, the laundry is done, the kids are ready, but then they say, 'I don't have any money.'"
Bentham praised Loughman. "In the short time he has been here, he has taken the time to see how the heart of the city beats, the different neighborhoods, Puerto Rican, Brazilian, West Indian, West End, South End," she said. "One of the things that unifies us is that everybody in those neighborhoods loves art. Our incomes are very different, but there's this magnificent art museum here and he's saying 'welcome.'"
Loughman said that "Wadsworth Welcome" will be promoted on radio and via Internet in English and Spanish and that Aetna is financing the ad campaign. The formal announcement by Loughman and Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin will be made Tuesday, Aug. 23, at 11 a.m. at the Atheneum.
To get a "Wadsworth Welcome" card, Hartford residents must bring one form of identification that proves residency, such as a driver's license or equivalent form of ID, to the museum, which is open Wednesdays through Sundays.
The card bearer can enter the museum free at any time with up to four guests. This means people from other towns can enter the museum free, too, if they visit with a city-dwelling card-bearer. Loughman doesn't mind.
"There are so many ways to get in free. Outside of the city, we have over 200 community libraries with an art pass that entitles the bearer to admission for two. Kids are free all the time. The Blue Star program offers free admission to active-duty military and their families all summer," Loughman said.
He added that admission is free to all between 4 and 5 p.m. every day, during Second Saturdays events and Community Open Houses and to Bank of America card holders the first weekend of every month.
"We're already open," Loughman said. "We're just adding more people."
He said, however, that there are no plans to eliminate admission entirely. "We're a pretty affluent state," he said. "There are plenty of people for whom $15 to walk in the door of the Atheneum is not a big deal at all."
A few museums nationwide offer programs similar to "Wadsworth Welcome." The Newark Museum in New Jersey does not charge admission. In 2014, it began offering free memberships to Newark residents, in a program funded by Prudential. "This demographic we're reaching does not have a heck of a lot of disposable income. We're not seeing a lot of activity in things that cost more money, but more people are coming into the museum," Executive Director Steven Kern said. "We're on their radar. It has equalized access."
Since 2012, Detroit Institute of Arts has given free admission to residents of three counties surrounding the museum. The program is funded by a small property-tax hike to pay for museum operations, which saved the museum in a time of dire financial straits. "It's a $10 per-year [tax increase] for every $100,000 value of the house," said spokeswoman Pamela Marcil. In the three years before the program, DIA's annual attendance ranged from 331,909 to 459,031, Marcil reported, and since then has risen to 594,267 to 638,733 annually.
The Connecticut Science Center in Hartford has offered free admission to Hartford residents every August for the past five years, a program funded this year by the Beatrice Fox Auerbach Foundation Fund at the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving. Center spokeswoman Tracy Shirer said the free August program has attracted more than 20,000 visitors since it started in 2012.
Others are more skeptical of free-admission strategies. A 2015 study by cultural marketing analyst Colleen Dilenschneider stated that "misunderstanding this engagement tactic may jeopardize industry sustainability." Among other conclusions, Dilenschneider's research found that admission prices are not a primary barrier to museum attendance and that the main beneficiary of free admission are people who would have visited the museum anyway. (Read the essay here.
The threat of fiscal instability was illustrated in New Mexico, where state museums used to offer free admission every Sunday to residents. Last month, that was scaled back to once a month because of budget cuts. Also, in 2015 the Indianapolis Museum of Art, which previously was free, reinstated admission prices due to budget woes. But that museum offers $1 admission for Indiana residents on public assistance.