Free admission boosts sense of public ownership of national museums

  • 29 June 2009

Eight years after free admission to museums and galleries was introduced, The Art Fund, the UK's leading independent art charity, releases its new research, Free to see - but what's next?, exploring what has happened since the national museums freely opened their doors, and what value the British public places on their national art collection.

‘I feel like I own this place anyway’

‘The fact that the gallery is free gives a sense of ownership’

‘Public ownership is about pride’

‘We expect free entry’

These are the thoughts of members of the public when asked whether they valued free entry to national art galleries.

Recently released government figures show visits to national museums and galleries are at a record high for the third year running, with more than 40.3 million such visits recorded last year. Since free admission was introduced in 2001, visits to previously charging museums have more than doubled, from 7.2 million eight years ago to 16 million last year.

The Art Fund’s research, produced in collaboration with The Work Foundation through a series of ‘Citizens’ Workshops’, found that free admission to galleries was highly valued and was important in making public ownership of the nation’s art real in people’s minds. Even if people didn’t regularly visit themselves, they felt free admission was valuable to society as a whole.

The research also found that, despite the removal of admission fees, other barriers remain which prevent people from visiting galleries and museums. A lack of knowledge about the art on display and a feeling of intimidation about the buildings themselves made people feel that they were not qualified to appreciate the art owned by the nation.

Workshop participants broadly representative of the wider public were invited to the National Gallery in London and the Manchester City Art Gallery to look at different aspects of the work of an art gallery. Participants were asked their views on visiting art galleries; debated whether decisions on buying art are best left to the experts; and were asked to play curator for a day and decide which work of art they would choose to secure for the collection.

The key findings suggest:

Free admission is valued and seen as a key element of public ownership.

Free admission is much valued – and makes the concept of ‘public ownership’ real.

Free admission does not of itself mean people think museums and galleries are places for them to visit. Government and museums should make every effort to find out what ‘barriers to entry’ still exist in our museums and galleries. The research highlighted some clear social and educational barriers that need to be tackled.

Better storytelling can involve the public and make art more approachable. Even apparently remote and difficult works can be made accessible relatively quickly - but the effort needs to be made.

The public should be encouraged to ask questions and interrogate decisions made on their behalf. Being asked what they think helps people feel a greater connection to the art collections they own, and may be a crucial first step in attracting support for fundraising campaigns.

Engaging the public in debate about collecting need not undermine the expert curator’s role. Galleries don’t need to be frightened to ask people what they think, because if the effort is made to engage people, they are happy to leave decisions to experts.

Andrew Macdonald, Acting Director of The Art Fund said: "Free admission has established itself in people’s minds as the cornerstone of what it means to have art owned by the public. Galleries can still feel intimidating or elitist, but those barriers disappear when they engage us in the human stories behind the art in our national collections."

For more information, please contact The Art Fund Press Office on 020 7225 4888 or Lizzie Bloom, Press and Campaigns Manager lbloom@artfund.org

Notes to editors:

1. Copies of Free to see - but what's next? are available to download from The Art Fund’s website

2. The Art Fund is the UK’s leading independent art charity. It offers grants to help UK museums and galleries enrich their collections; campaigns on behalf of museums and their visitors; and promotes the enjoyment of art.

3. It is entirely funded from public donations and has 80,000 members. Since 1903 the charity has helped museums and galleries all over the UK secure 860,000 works of art for their collections.

4. Recent achievements include: helping secure Titian’s Diana and Actaeon for the National Galleries of Scotland and the National Gallery, London in February 2009 with a grant of £1 million; helping secure Anthony d’Offay’s collection, ARTIST ROOMS, for Tate and National Galleries of Scotland in February 2008 with a grant of £1million; and running the ‘Buy a Brushstroke’ public appeal which raised over £550,000 to keep Turner’s Blue Rigi watercolour in the UK.

5. For more information contact the Press Office on 020 7225 4888 or visit www.artfund.org

The Art Fund is a Registered Charity No. 209174