Academic journal article Journal of Case Studies

Tacoma Art Museum: Will Less Be More?

Academic journal article Journal of Case Studies

Tacoma Art Museum: Will Less Be More?

Article excerpt

Tacoma Art Museum Director Stephanie Stebich pointed to a news article announcing free admission at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia, and asked, "Can we do this?" Deputy Director Cameron Fellows had heard the question before. He wondered whether an admission fee kept people from visiting museums. Regardless of whether the price of admission was really a barrier, Fellows knew that his conservative fiscal stance was once again being questioned. The populist Director kept a close eye on trends in the museum field and had previous experience working at admission-free museums in Minneapolis and Cleveland. It was a good question, "Why not free admission at the Tacoma Art Museum?"

Fellows knew that this time Director Stebich was serious. She wanted to bring the discussion forward to the Board of Trustees; many had traveled extensively and had shared their experiences of visiting admission-free museums. Yet, some of the Board members had expressed their hesitancy in eliminating admission fees, since they were one of the few dependable, though at times variable revenue sources. Stebich and Fellows agreed that a decision to go admission-free would require the Tacoma Art Museum to raise significant endowment funds or generate additional earned income to support the lost revenue.

The Tacoma Art Museum (the Museum) was a regional, mid-sized museum in Western Washington, dedicated to collecting and exhibiting Northwest art. Its mission was to "connect people through art" (Tacoma Art Museum, 2014). The Museum's leadership had worked hard to achieve its vision as "a national model for regional museums by creating a dynamic museum that engages, inspires, and builds community through art" (ibid). In 2003 the Museum had moved into a beautiful new building and greatly increased the size of its collection. Recently, the Haub family had donated $20 million and 280 pieces of primarily Western American art, the largest donation in the Museum's history. The generous gift would fund a new wing that would double the gallery space and be dedicated to showcasing primarily Western American art.

The leadership team wondered what more it could do to realize the mission of connecting people through art. Earlier in the year, Director Stebich and Deputy Director Fellows discussed whether to offer free admission for the regular collection to all visitors all the time. The Director supported the idea of free admission; she sought to increase the number of visitors in total and the number of visitors from targeted underrepresented groups. She had heard both positive and negative comments about free admission from her donors. However, the Deputy Director expressed concern over the financial impact of free admission. It was a potentially risky decision that would require the Museum to use money from the endowment to cover the lost admission revenue upfront, with no guarantees that free admission would increase the number of visitors. Director Stebich called a meeting with Deputy Director Fellows to discuss the decision. They had less than one week to sort through the issues, reach agreement on whether to propose free admission, and to prepare their case for presentation to the Board of Trustees.

Brief History of the Museum

The Tacoma Art Museum was incorporated in 1935 as the Tacoma Arts Association. The association first met as the "Ida Cochran Group" to create an arts museum in memory of the former head of the Department of Art and Design at the College of Puget Sound, now the University of Puget Sound. For many years, the Museum was housed in Jones Hall on the university campus. Its first exhibition was of Northwest artists, followed by an exhibition of Peruvian textiles, then Japanese block prints, and even Cezanne (Tacoma Art Museum, 2010). The Museum has had several locations, and in 2003, it moved into a new building designed specifically for the Museum and its focus on Northwest art and artists (Tacoma Art Museum, 2014). …

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