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Bowers' rarity: the $19 ticket

The Santa Ana museum raises its admission to New York City levels, though its director says it's an all-for-one deal.

February 23, 2007|Diane Haithman | Times Staff Writer

When the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art unveiled its Dorothy and Donald Kennedy Wing on Sunday, it also unveiled something else: the highest general admission price on the West Coast. At $17 on weekdays and $19 on weekends for adults, the Santa Ana museum ranks just behind New York's Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in terms of top admission prices for art museums.

The Museum of Modern Art sparked outrage in 2004 when it raised admission prices from $12 to $20, making it one of the world's most expensive art museums to visit. Last July, the Metropolitan Museum of Art followed suit by raising its recommended adult admission from $15 to $20, although the fee is voluntary.

Now the Bowers, a midsized Orange County institution with an annual operating budget that represents a tiny fraction of those of the behemoth New York institutions -- $5 million to the Met's $183 million and MoMa's $140 million -- has raised its adult general admission almost as high, and by more actual dollars than either of the New York museums, making a $14 jump from $5 to $19.

The Bowers argues that, because it charged $19 for the ongoing "Mummies: Death and the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt ... Treasures From the British Museum," a special exhibition that opened in April 2005, this does not represent a price increase, since only a handful of patrons were opting to pay $5 to visit just the permanent collections.

Director Peter C. Keller said the museum is now rolling its special exhibitions and permanent galleries into one admission fee. "The shocking statement I'll make is we haven't changed our prices," he said.

But when "Mummies" opened, the museum was still offering the $5 admission to its permanent collections, which include California plein-air paintings and Native American art. With Sunday's opening of "Treasures From Shanghai: 5,000 Years of Chinese Art and Culture" and another special exhibition, "Ansel Adams: Classic Images," the $5 ticket was eliminated.

While the American Assn. of Museums does not compile comparative statistics on general admission prices, Irene Y. Hirano, president and chief executive of the Japanese American National Museum and chairwoman of the museum association, said she had not heard of any American museum besides the Met and MoMA charging as much for general admission. Nor had Mimi Gaudieri, executive director of the Assn. of Art Museum Directors.

The Bowers move comes at a time when some museums are eliminating admission fees entirely. When told of the Bowers' new admission price, Gary Vikan, director of Baltimore's Walters Art Museum, which offers free admission, spluttered: "My God! These are not our assets; they belong to the public. The challenge for all of us should not be to see how high we can push it but how low we can push it."

Hirano says museums often build their memberships by offering free admission. "The offset of charging a high admission is that it presents an opportunity to encourage people to become a member," she said, "so you have ongoing support."

Many museums demand ticket prices of $19 or higher for special exhibitions. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, for example, charges a weekend adult price of $20 for its Magritte exhibition, which ends March 4, and asked a whopping $30 for 2005's "Treasures of Tutankhamen." At LACMA, as at most museums, the special price also includes general admission, which at LACMA is $9.

But for general admission, the Bowers' $19 tops the going rate of major big-city museums, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago (both $12), the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art ($12.50) and the Museum of Fine Arts Boston and Atlanta's High Museum of Art (both $15).

Keller believes his museum's price is fair because the Bowers plans to have at least one special exhibition at all times, consistent with what other institutions charge for special exhibitions.

"Some consultants let us know we were sending the wrong message," Keller said of the lower admission price. "We were saying the museum wasn't worth very much." And, he added, "I've worked in museums for 35 years; and when I worked up in L.A. at the Natural History Museum, we did a lot of surveys that showed that people only visited once if you didn't change things, unless they had people from out of town."

The Bowers is not the first museum to institute such a policy: After completing its $150-million expansion in November 2005, the High Museum began charging an everyday price of $15, including any special shows, instead of offering a separate $10 admission to the permanent collections only.

But $19? That's high, even when compared with the High, which in its admission package offers the latest installment of its three-year "Louvre Atlanta" series, featuring works from the famed Paris museum. Keller said the nature of the Bowers' special exhibition commitments demands the higher price.

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