Is the MFAH Too Damn Expensive?

Paris, France-based artist and writer Payam Sharifi was recently back in his hometown Houston when he decided to pay a visit to his hometown museum, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Often cited as one of the largest and most prestigious art institutions in the country, the MFAH is a big deal to Sharifi, a co-founder of the art collective Slavs and Tatars. In 1995, the Iranian-American artist, whose work is part of the permanent collection of New York's Museum of Modern Art, scored his first job in art as an intern for Anne Tucker in the MFAH's photography department.

Recently, when Sharifi arrived at one of the museum's special exhibitions, he paid $18, a typical fee for one of MFAH's ticketed shows. When he wanted to see another temporary exhibit, he was asked to fork over an additional $18.

"I said, 'Are you serious? You don't offer a combo ticket?' They said 'no' and I had to pay $36, more than the equivalent at the Louvre, MoMA or any other museum that I can recall," says Sharifi.

The Louvre's combination ticket, which includes access to permanent collections and temporary exhibits, costs approximately $20. MoMA's $25 price tag, instituted in September 2011, includes admission to special exhibitions, audio programs, films and gallery talks.

Unless it's a Thursday when the MFAH waives its general admission fee, the museum, under the leadership of Gary Tinterow since 2012, charges up to $13, which gains entry into the space but not to the special exhibitions.

In addition to a November 2012 fund-raiser that brought in $1.58 million, the museum's endowment has reached approximately $1 billion.

"The past decade has seen museums move toward making their collections and exhibitions more accessible to the general public," says Sharifi. "It seems the MFAH, however, is pursuing the opposite strategy, pricing out most of the public from its admirable collection if not so ambitious programming, save [for] those with disposable income to spend on culture."

In Sharifi's opinion, an MFAH-like institution that's getting it right is the Dallas Museum of Art, which ditched the $10 admission fee to its general collection on January 21. DMA, unlike the MFAH, is partially funded through the City of Dallas's Office of Cultural Affairs and the Texas Commission on the Arts.

Mary Haus, MFAH's Director of Marketing and Communications, explains that the museum's special-exhibit pricing is made on an exhibition-by-exhibition basis. She adds that private institutions like the MFAH, the sixth-largest museum in the country, aren't able to rely on city or government funding.

"Private museums without city, county or state support, including the MFAH, typically charge admission fees for large-scale exhibitions that carry significant expenses such as shipping, crating, insurance, interpretive materials, etc.," says Haus about exhibits such as "Portrait of Spain: Masterpieces from the Prado" (which costs $18 for adults) and the upcoming "Picasso Black and White" (which will set grown-ups back $20).

Adds Haus, "I think it's fair to say that we're even below competitive rates with our peers in other major metropolitan areas."

Sharifi disagrees, pointing to the fact that MoMA's admission fee, though pricey, allows an art-goer to wander wherever he or she pleases.

"Ideally, the MFAH should follow suit and offer the same [as the Dallas Museum of Art], especially given its impressive endowment. Failing that, it should at least offer a single all-inclusive ticket at an affordable price, below the $25 benchmark established by the MoMA a couple years ago," says Sharifi.

Haus acknowledges that MFAH follows a model that has been in place for a long time and that it could be reconsidered. However, it looks as if the museum is going to keep doing what it has been doing.

"It's only natural that some institutions are taking a look at [changing business models]," says Haus. "It's kind of a constant conversation, and I think it's one that's being had all over the country in terms of what's the most viable model to advance the mission, sustain the institution and provide the best experience possible for our visitors, whether they be guests or members."

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