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Many Southern California museums offering free admission Saturday and Oct. 3 and 4

The Santa Monica Museum of Art, California Science Center and Skirball Cultural Center are among those participating in the national program Saturday, but many big institutes such as LACMA are not.

September 25, 2009|David Ng

Special free-admission days at museums around the country have become a popular and apparently successful marketing tool, but some institutions are becoming more particular about which events they participate in.

On the eve of a nationwide free museum day Saturday sponsored by Smithsonian Magazine -- which many local museums are not participating in -- and the "Museums Free-for-All" Oct. 3 and 4 at various Los Angeles and Orange county institutions, museum leaders and others are aiming for the most recognition of their "brand" when it comes to free admission.

With museum ticket prices in L.A. reaching as high as $12 per person for regular admission, free days offer low-income and disadvantaged people the chance to experience the arts. Free days were introduced before the economic downturn, but in today's arts environment, they also offer people stung by the poor economy entrance to their local museum.

This year, 24 museums around Southern California are participating in the "Museums Free-for-All," a 5-year-old program devised by the marketing departments of many of the area's largest institutions, including the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Hammer Museum at UCLA and the Natural History Museum of L.A. County.

Participating museums say attendance typically jumps during free days, at some museums as much as 115%.

But many of these same institutions have chosen not to participate in Saturday's nationwide free museum day organized by the Smithsonian Magazine. Spokespersons for L.A. museums that are opting out of the Smithsonian's program said they want to solidify the local "brand" of their institutions before jumping on another bandwagon.

"We've all discussed whether we want to latch on to them but we've been talking about building our own brand," said Leslie Denk, director of marketing at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, which charges $8 for general adult admission. "The Smithsonian one is perhaps too diluted." Major museums in other cities that are participating include the New Museum and Rubin Museum of Art in New York and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Though more than 50 cultural venues in Southern California are taking part in Saturday's event -- including the Santa Monica Museum of Art and the California Science Center -- the conspicuous absence of the region's largest museums is partly due to economic pressure, according to the Smithsonian.

"Bigger museums carry a larger admission price and the loss of admission for that day is more than some of them can manage," said Rosie Walker, an associate publisher at Smithsonian Media. "It's a tough time. It's a difficult period for museums to get donations. Everyone large and small is squeezing their budget."

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art isn't participating in any free-day programs, local or national. The museum, which normally charges $12 per person, offers its own free admission programs, including every second Tuesday of the month and select holidays sponsored by the big-box retailer Target. When asked why LACMA is pursuing a go-it-alone strategy, a spokeswoman referred to its schedule of free-admission offerings.

Target, which sponsors numerous cultural events around the country, said through a spokesperson that its mission is to make the arts more accessible as well as to generate goodwill within communities toward the Target brand. The retailer helps to cover the cost of running its sponsored events. In exchange, the company's logo and name are featured prominently in the institution's marketing and promotional literature.

A select handful of institutions are trying to participate in as many free day programs as possible.

The Skirball Cultural Center, which charges $10 general admission, is participating in Saturday's Smithsonian event as well as the local Museums Free-for-All in October.

"Some museums are having a harder time getting approval to participate due to the lost revenue," said Stacy Lieberman, director of external affairs at the Skirball. "But we're able to be involved in both programs. We feel that it's a select audience and that they don't compete."

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david.ng@latimes.com

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