Why we should open the cultural doors to everyone.

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Words: Niamh Arwin Spalding (she/her) 

When it comes to the temptation of anything free, it’s hard to resist. Free admission to various attractions, be it museums or nightclubs, holds a universal appeal. The prospect of enjoying an experience without the burden of cost often prompts people to seize the opportunity, particularly when there’s free entry before a certain time, like 10 pm. However, when we apply this to art galleries, a pertinent question arises: do we start taking them for granted if admission is always free?

Free admission undoubtedly serves as a blessing for individuals facing financial constraints, such as those on tight budgets, the unemployed, the elderly, or large families. It facilitates outings that might otherwise be financially burdensome. Yet, in our society, is there a tendency to exploit this generosity? Should we reconsider charging access to significant cultural institutions like the Kelvingrove Art Gallery or the Gallery of Modern Art?

An insightful research paper by Andy Martin, the head of leisure research for CultureHive, highlights a significant trend: the abolition of entry charges resulted in a staggering increase in visitor numbers to national museums and galleries. Between December 2001 and June 2002, visitor figures surged by 62% in Britain, totaling 7,031,722 individuals. This surge underscores the allure of free admission, perhaps driven by varying personal circumstances or a reluctance to pay for an experience without the certainty of enjoyment.

Growing up in Scotland, where 186 museums and attractions in Scotland can be visited without charge, evokes many memories and fuels my strong beliefs on this topic. When my friends and I visited Glasgow, places like GoMA and The Lighthouse offered us enriching experiences without the burden of cost, fostering cultural exploration and sparking our interest. I vividly recall my dad taking me to see the mummies at Kelvingrove during our school’s study of ancient Egypt, a memory I cherish to this day. Had we been required to pay for admission, such moments might not have been possible.

Personally, I oppose mandatory entry fees for art galleries and cultural venues. However, I recognise the importance of supporting these institutions through other means like purchases in gift shops or café visits. Yet, the pricing structure can profoundly impact how we perceive art’s value. While a substantial entry fee may deepen appreciation, it risks excluding locals and perpetuating socioeconomic disparities in cultural access. Finding a balance that promotes accessibility and sustains these institutions financially is crucial for fostering a vibrant and inclusive cultural landscape.

Reflecting on personal experiences brings these complexities to light. During a recent trip to Florence, the desire to visit the renowned Uffizi Gallery – home to masterpieces like The Birth of Venus and works by Michelangelo – was strong. However, upon reaching the entrance, the hefty entry fee of 30 euros per person gave us pause. This steep price swayed both my boyfriend and I, detracting from what could have been a memorable highlight of our trip. Dishing out 30 euros to see art made me hesitate, especially considering budget constraints while travelling. The idea of parting with a substantial sum of money without the guarantee of truly connecting with or appreciating the artwork felt daunting. Moreover, the price tag made me think twice about spontaneous visits or returning for multiple viewings, ultimately limiting my ability to fully immerse myself in the cultural experience. However, if they had a more flexible pay-what-you-can system in place it might have encouraged our visit, fostering greater engagement with Italian culture while still supporting the gallery.

Implementing a pay-what-you-can system rather than a standard charge could prove more effective in multiple ways. Firstly, it allows visitors to pay for exactly what they wish to see, eliminating any hesitations over perceived value. Additionally, it encourages longer visits, as patrons are more likely to explore various exhibits without feeling pressured to spend a large sum upfront. Moreover, it promotes inclusivity by accommodating visitors with diverse financial circumstances, ensuring that everyone can enjoy and appreciate cultural experiences without barriers. 

Overall, making cultural experiences more accessible by eliminating entry fees could enhance a city’s allure, benefiting its economy and fostering greater appreciation for its cultural heritage. Living in Glasgow, I’ve come to cherish how the absence of admission fees to our cultural gems has transformed our city’s cultural landscape. It’s allowed everyone, regardless of their background or income, to immerse themselves in the beauty of our museums and galleries, fostering a sense of inclusivity and pride in our shared heritage. However, it’s essential to strike a balance between sustaining these institutions financially and ensuring equitable access for all, irrespective of socioeconomic status. Through innovative pricing strategies like pay-what-you-can systems, we can create a more inclusive and enriching cultural landscape for everyone to enjoy wherever they go.



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