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DMA’s Decision to End Free Thursday Nights is Shortsighted

by Lanie Delay 9 Feb 2010 5:07 PM

Guest blogger Lanie DeLay is a Dallas-based artist and has recently been living and working in New York. Having been to the Dallas Museum of Art twice in the last couple of weeks, I have been reminded of Jerome Weeks’ recent post regarding the museum’s decision to end its free Thursday evenings.  In particular, I […]


Guest blogger Lanie DeLay is a Dallas-based artist and has recently been living and working in New York.

Having been to the Dallas Museum of Art twice in the last couple of weeks, I have been reminded of Jerome Weeks’ recent post regarding the museum’s decision to end its free Thursday evenings.  In particular, I have been considering a reader’s comment that followed, saying that the decision is sad but understandable, and I am compelled to disagree.  It was not an inevitable policy change; there are other options.

Because attracting new visitors is crucial to finding long-term sustaining patrons, almost every single major museum in the U.S. participates in weekly or daily free, pay-what-you-wish or reduced admission times.  It is well-known that it is one of the very best ways to bring in those who might not otherwise visit, especially first-time visitors, students and many artists, for whom even $5 can be a considerable deterrent.  Peter Simek of D Magazine wrote eloquently of the value he and his wife derived from the museum’s free nights over the years, and indeed Thursday nights were when many Dallas artists typically went there.  For better or for worse, people’s schedules are such that once-a-month reduced or free admission times are not nearly as likely to be taken advantage of as weekly ones, particularly when it is only from 11 to 5 on a Tuesday.  Even if it were on a Saturday, if one were missed, an exhibit a visitor is hoping to see may well be down by the next month.

If free admission is absolutely not feasible for the DMA, it should follow the lead of the Guggenheim or the many, many other American museums that have weekly pay-what-you-wish times (or the Metropolitan, which allows this every day).  Alternatively, the DMA could seek the support of a new corporate sponsor to help provide weekly free or reduced admission visiting times now that Starbucks is no longer filling that role for the museum.  Target is such a sponsor for over 100 museums across the country, and Wells Fargo and CIT continue to sponsor a number of museums’ special admissions, despite problems in the financial sector.  Another option is raising the general admission price.  At $10 per visit, the DMA’s standard admission price is a good deal lower than many museums across the country.  With a small increase, the museum would be well on its way to compensating for the cost of its invaluable Thursday night service to the community.

There are still other ways to sustain the DMA and help build it into a better museum.  The national media has focused on the turnaround that has been going on at Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art, due in no small part to the heroic efforts of Eli Broad; similarly, Leonard Lauder has given extensive financial support to the Whitney Museum, as has David Rockefeller to the Museum of Modern Art.  With the extraordinary donations of the Rachofsky, Rose and Hoffman family collections to the DMA, Dallas has seen that there is a will to support its only major art museum amongst private citizens.  Perhaps there are additional sources of funding in the metropolitan area.  If we as a city are in doubt as to the value of a museum to its population, we should look no further than the recent article and slide show by the New York Times‘ Pulitzer-winning art critic Holland Cotter about his experiences as a boy in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, or the video Jerome Weeks re-posted here on Art&Seek only a day before writing on the DMA’s Thursday night policy change.  Continuing to be open late on Thursday nights but now requiring full admission price is likely to result in lower attendance and high staffing costs.  It was a sharp pain to be told repeatedly upon arriving for a recent panel discussion on the state of the arts in Dallas that attending the lecture was free, but I would have to come back and pay $10 if I looked at any of the art between the entrance and the Horchow Auditorium, where the discussion was to take place. In light of all the bad news for art entities in Dallas over the last year, this is a particularly unfortunate, unnecessary decision for the art community of Dallas.

  • lanie. well written and a very thoughtful position. good job! i agree!

  • Beth Newman

    OK, I admit it: I haven’t taken advantage of the free Thursday nights. But still! I like to think I live in a city where such things happen–free admission to its art museum at a time when working people can attend. I hope the DMA will reconsider!

  • Cristina Medina

    This is a tragedy. As a professor of art at a Dallas Community College, I have always relied on free Thursday nights to persuade my Art Appreciation students into going to a museum. They are already reluctant because they are new to art, and therefore uncomfortable and usually have never been to the DMA, even though living in Dallas their whole lives. I have made attending a museum or gallery a required assignment, and always make a great pitch about DMA free Thursdays. I know my students would opt more often for a free establishment because they are usually working full time and attend community college to save money. I hope the DMA finds a way to allow students to still attend for free or a discounted price.

    • Wendi

      HI Cristina
      Your students can still get in free on Thursdays with a valid student ID.

  • I could almost smile at the irony, if there weren’t so much at stake.

    But I’m disappointed, given recent and otherwise encouraging developments right there in the Arts District, literally a few feet away. On one side of the Museum are shiny, new Performing Arts Center facilities. On the other side, the second Dallas Art Fair just concluded.

    I’m not saying the DMA should be chastened into restoring free admission. And it’s not even that I want to denigrate the value of such high-profile advances on the Dallas art scene. But when I see so much attention and financial support going to these more expensive cultural opportunities, admission to which for most residents is considered a luxury, while at the same time efforts to make them available are falling by the wayside, a little alarm bell goes off inside my head.

    Do I understand correctly then, that millions can be raised to build opera and theatre houses, essentially on spec, while the residents already here and waiting to visit their museum can’t be underwritten? And if you’re in the faction that thinks, even if you build it they won’t come, then you haven’t seen the families and children flooding into the Nasher Sculpture Center with free admission on Target’s First Saturdays.

    How can we proclaim the arts to be a part of a city’s vitality when our actions, or more accurately the lack thereof, indicate we don’t really believe in making much of it accessible to the average citizen? The answer is we don’t really believe it IS that important.

    One reason is, like everywhere else, those-who-have don’t get those-who-don’t. In my past life I was a creative director in the advertising industry, and once, working on a tv commercial for a giant insurance company, we were shooting on-location in a Dallas home. Our little 30-second drama was about an average person stymied by the complexities of health care, and one executive thought it perfectly average to stage one scene around a grand piano.

    But we don’t even have to get all Marxist to get a handle on it. I just mark it up to cluelessness. People with a nearsighted, impatient philosophy about encouraging growth in Dallas think that, to attract economic development with the promise of arts and culture, all we have to do is hire Pritzker Prize-winning architects to create great facilities. It reminds me of old movie and tv westerns, with small towns that built false fronts on their buildings to make it look like they were already two-stories high.

    And that cluelessness even extends to those who should know about art, and artists, most of all. A couple years ago, the Dallas Art Dealers Association (whose slogan, by the way, is “Art for all”) posed the question “Dallas Fort Worth: the next New York City?” to a panel including a representative from the DMA. The panel moderator prefaced the discussion with a list of vital ingredients for any city to become “a great city for art,” and high on that list was this one: a thriving community of working artists. Everybody on the panel seemed to agree with that premise. So when I asked the DMA what they were doing to nurture such a community, one they agreed was a unique and essential factor in creating a “great city for art,” the best answer they could come up with was their general-admission Free Thursday Nights.

    My point is this. You may see a lot of nodding of heads, a lot of reverent lip service to the idea of establishing authentic cultural life here and that the arts are for everyone. But when it comes down to the slow, patient work of exposing our residents to this rich experience and developing an understanding and appreciation for the arts, the money will always go to things that seem to offer a faster R.O.I., to outward appearances and the putting on of the dog.

  • The Cost of “Free”: Admission Fees at American Art Museums by Gypsy McFelter.

    This article was published in Museum News in January/February 2007 but speaks well to this issue three years later.

    Having free admission nights &/or weekends for those who work or are in school or families or unemployed are even far more critical in a tougher economy.

    These are the last 2 paragraphs:

    “Despite the challenging aspects of free admission days, it is reasonable to conclude that they are vital to a museum’s accessibility. Art museums should evaluate visitation patterns and the needs of visitors on both free and paid days to determine if the current situation achieves an optimal balance of access for the community, revenue for the museum and cultivation of the next generation of patrons. Enacting change from within the museum to promote community accessibility will need broad support from all levels of the museum—from the guards and visitor services staff through the curatorial and directorial teams.

    Some might argue that not enough progress has been made in serving diverse audiences since this goal became a more widely recognized priority following the publication of AAM’s 1992 report Excellence and Equity, which outlined museums’ educational role. If the goal of a museum is to create programming that supports the nontraditional or first-time visitor’s experience and encourages them to return, then a policy of free admission in some form—even if restricted to specific days or hours—is worthy of serious consideration.”

  • Diane Kliebenstein

    As an associate of a world-renown design firm whose headquarters is in Uptown Dallas, I constantly tell people who visit our office about the wonders of the Dallas Arts District. Chief amoth these are the DMA, and the Nasher, both of which I am a member.

    I haved lived all over the country and have never seen or experienced the inclusiveness the DMA has heretofore displayed in any other major city.

    I have seen teenagers on dates and families experiencing the wonders to be seen at the DMA every Thursday night, not to mention the wonderful music which allows local jazz musicians to connect with an audience predisposed to open their minds to interpretive music in an environment uniquely conducive to the appreication of their artistry.

    It would be a great disappointment to me — and I believe the entire DFW area — to discontinue the free Thursday evenings.

  • jesse

    As a student I am sorry to hear this. My art history class required a visit to a museum and this was my 1st idea. Now I will have to visit some other gallery.