Charging admissions to museums is unethical

John Denver crashed a plane in California on Oct. 12, 1997, dying on impact. Thirty years prior, on Oct. 3, 1967, Woody Guthrie succumbed to Huntington’s disease. Both men were wildly influential and politically-fueled folk artists, and each of them have items on display at the Woody Guthrie Center in the Tulsa Arts District.

For just $8 ($7 if you bring your student ID!) you’re granted access to this building, and are allowed to peruse an area lined with the belongings of dead men. These belongings include the stage costumes and famous glasses of John Denver, or the diaries and scrapbooks of Woody Guthrie. The concept of deceased persons’ belongings being put on display in museums isn’t foreign; in most cases, the belongings of these museum-worthy people are graciously donated to museums by their estates. Foreign, neither, is the concept of museums charging admission in the first place.
The familiarity of the ideas doesn’t help them sit well in my mind, however. It doesn’t seem right when I see people paying admission to enter museums and learn about them, and about the people who inspired them. It’s an idealist argument, sure, but it’s one that affects all of us.

In the Tulsa Arts District, the Woody Guthrie Center is surrounded by art galleries with free admission, but also shares the block with the Philbrook Museum of Art, which boasts $7 admission cost. Of course, the Woody Guthrie Center assures us on its website that it’s “…more than a museum; instead, it is a center of investigation for inspiration. By providing examples of Woody’s ability to use his creativity as a way of expressing the world around him, we hope to encourage others to find their voices and the power that lies within the creative process.”
So, what separates these free museums and galleries from the ones charging admission?

It’s unfair to suggest anything about the fiscal responsibilities and capabilities of the Woody Guthrie Center, because I truly don’t know their specifics. There are government funds and programs that seek to specifically line museums’ pockets (though the Woody Guthrie Center is not government-supported), and a lot of museums are kept afloat by large and gracious donations from individuals and foundations who have interests of one sort or another in the fine arts.

The Woody Guthrie Center doesn’t have a list of its donations anywhere on its website, or if it is it’s at least hard to find, but I’m reasonably sure they receive at least some significant chunk of their income in donations; the largest listed value with benefits on the site’s “Donate” page is $25,000.

There still exists some discrepancy in Tulsa’s museum/gallery world, however. You have large and well-known places like the Woody Guthrie Center, the Philbrook, even the Gilcrease that all charge admission, and you then have smaller galleries like 108 Contemporary or Living Arts that are free at all times.

There is a clear line drawn in what the venues hold. The free ones are primarily galleries with rotating events and contemporary pieces. The ones that charge admission hold more historic and static items, save for the Philbrook which also hosts galleries and events. In the case of the Philbrook, at least, one has to wonder why it’s the odd one out.

But there are, again, aspects I’m being unfair to. The Philbrook and the Woody Guthrie center certainly have to pay for shipping on the venues that come through their doors. They must have to pay for rights to display the venues, such as in the case of the latter venue I imagine the Woody Guthrie Center had to give a certain amount to John Denver’s estate.

The venues that charge admission generally have larger and more historic galleries, and those come with insurances, protections and display rights to pay for, things that the contemporary galleries most likely run into less. Though, given the age of the admission-charging galleries and their popularity, I feel they could get along without charging admission.

Traditionally free museums are free for the same reason that libraries are free. There is knowledge out there that the public deserves to know, has the right to know, and should be able to gain unobstructed knowledge to. In an ideal world, and likely this world, museums can be supported by government funds and by donations alone, so I flirt with the idea that the Woody Guthrie Center, the Philbrook and the Gilcrease just want additional money. That’s their legal right, but at what cost?

Charging for art is an ethical question that rears its head from time to time. Unlike piracy, which is a direct ethical violation in that it directly deprives the artist from compensation, most galleries have already paid the artists for their work. In places like the Gilcrease that host non-contemporary art, the matter of paying the artist is non-existent anyway. Meaningful art is hard work and deserves due payment, but it should also be easy to see. The venue pays the artist and hosts the gallery for free, and in most cases it would seem the venues can survive without charging admission (see: 108 Contemporary, Living Arts, etc.).

Artists like Woody Guthrie and John Denver, though, of course can’t be paid. Their estates have likely already been compensated for donating items to the galleries, and now the gallery’s only reason to charge admission to see the items is for the self-interest of the gallery, a foggy self-interest that may already be sustained by donations and government programs.
I wonder what Woody Guthrie and John Denver would make of the situation, watching people pay $8 to walk in and look at all their old belongings. Both artists were upstanding proponents for the working class and the economically aggrieved; both men would want their life’s work to be more readily available to the very people for whom they fought. I imagine it’d be a foreign concept to them, to see people pay to see their clothes or their glasses, or listen to some old recordings, something they would have been more than happy to show for free. They were artists, and they wanted their art enjoyed by all, not by all that pay.

Post Author: Ethan Veenker