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Make L.A. a Free Art Zone

June 22, 2002

Art's good for people. A Valley girl stumbles upon "Shiva as the Lord of the Dance" at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and something about those arms waving gracefully within an aureole of flame inspires her to see Ventura Boulevard in a whole new light. A janitor from El Salvador stops by the Getty on his way to work, and that night his usually bleak graveyard shift is invigorated by the raucous, unsettling crowd in James Ensor's painting "Christ's Entry Into Brussels."

Recently, Times art critic Christopher Knight urged LACMA to eliminate its general admission fee. We have an even bolder suggestion: How about the area's top museums declare Greater Los Angeles a free art zone?

Many museums don't charge admission fees--including Washington's publicly funded National Gallery, the St. Louis Art Museum, which includes public and private funding, and the private Menil Collection in Houston. But the Los Angeles region could be the first to fling open its museums' doors to anyone with a hankering for some Rembrandt or Diebenkorn.

The Getty is already free. If the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Huntington Library Art Collection and the Norton Simon Museum joined the campaign, financially strapped aficionados might enjoy a few more visits to their favorite Henry Moore sculpture or Diego Rivera painting. More important, whole new segments of the population might make room for art in their lives.

Five months after Britain abolished entrance fees at its national museums, attendance grew 75%--quite a revelation to those who argued that people don't appreciate what comes free. Conversely, when LACMA began charging in 1978, attendance to the museum dropped 44%. A quarter-century later, annual attendance remains at 500,000.

Admission fees represent 3% to 10% of a museum's annual operating budget, so letting people in free would not threaten ruin. Waiving entrance fees might turn some people away from buying museum memberships, since many patrons are motivated, in part, by the free admission that comes with member status. But the bulk of most museums' budgets already comes from the donations of people who think art is important and want to share a cherished experience.

Sure, many of those people--even truly poor ones--who won't spend the $6 for an adult admission to the Norton Simon wouldn't hesitate to spend $2.50 more than that to see "Scooby-Doo" or 10 times that to watch Shaq slam-dunk. Which only underscores museums' need to make art more tempting. "Free admission" signs would do just that.

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