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Hoppe on the Arts: Admissions going up

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The Chicago Park District, the civic body responsible for command decisions regarding the Art Institute of Chicago, has announced that it intends to raise admission fees from $12 to $18 on May 23.

A Park District representative said the price hike was "essential" to "uphold our mission and serve the community."

Say what?

I have a feeling the Art Institute is about to be, to quote Elmer Fudd, "very, very quiet."

In the 1980s, large public institutions drank corporate kool-aid. They decided that they were in competition with the larger world of entertainment, including theme parks. With their boards increasingly populated for fund-raising purposes by members of the corporate elite, they bought into the prevalent view that to stay alive, an organization had to constantly grow. "Grow or die," was the mantra. Organizations that were incorporated as not-for-profit were run as if they were businesses. This was supposed to be a good thing. It was supposed to be smart.

It meant that larger attendance was mandatory. As was providing the public with plenty of diverting bells and whistles.

Institutions that, for years, had been free of charge, like the Indianapolis Children's Museum, started charging families to come inside.

Indeed, the Art Institute in Chicago only had a "suggested" admission fee until 1996. Now it will cost two 20-somethings on their first date $36 to have a look.

Bigger isn't always better, particularly when it comes to institutions responsible for preserving and presenting the works of art and other cultural artifacts that they hold as part of the public trust. Over the past 25 years, too many of our cultural institutions, mistaking themselves for entertainment destinations, have over-extended and over-built in the name of relevance. Now, in tough economic times, they -- like the failing financial institutions whose executives populate many of their boards -- lack the necessary agility to maneuver.

Indeed, the Art Institute is now in the process of completing a major new addition by architect Renzo Piano. Fewer people may want to visit it in light of a 50 percent ticket increase.

And, when it comes down to it, will that price increase really help the museum's bottom line? When Maxwell Anderson took over at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, his first significant act was to eliminate the recently implemented admission charge because, he contended, it only gave people another reason to stay away.

During previous economic downturns free public institutions have generally, for obvious reasons, prospered. These days, for example, we hear about increasing usage at public libraries. This is when people rediscover such resources; this when they prove how indispensable they really are. Our current situation represents a great opportunity for those nonprofits that, unlike the Art Institute in Chicago, have remained true to their missions.

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