12 November 2010

Smithsonian Fees

DCist | Aaron Morrissey | Commission Proposes Charging For Smithsonian Admission

Former Sen. Alan Simpson and Clinton Administration member Erskine Bowles, members of the the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, have suggested cutting the budget of the Smithsonian Institution by $225 million -- and recouping that loss by charging $7.50 for admission to the Institution's facilities.
Fine by me. Let the people who use the resources pay for the resources.

As much as I love being able to duck into the Nat'l Gallery of Art for a short visit and not have to worry about paying and getting my money's worth, there's no reason some guy in Colorado Springs should be picking up the tab for me. The free Smithsonian policy benefits DC area residents (and disproportionally the richer, better educated ones -- no judgement, that's just the statistics of the matter) and people whose priorities and means are such that they choose to vacation in the Imperial City. There's no more reason for everyone else to subsidize that than there is for me to subsidize the National Mule and Packers Museum in Bishop, Calif, or the Kansas Regional Prisons Museum in Leavenworth.
All due respect to Orvetti for taking what will probably be an incredibly unpopular stance. But if we're going to start charging for admission to the Smithsonian, why stop there? Let's just start sucking money out of all the other free federally-controlled stuff in the District! You want to play Saturday soccer on the Mall? Yeah, that'll be five dollars. Oh, you'd like to sit and read a book in Meridian Hill? That'll be $2.25. Perhaps you'd like to take a hike through Rock Creek Park -- yeah, that will cost you ten dollars for the first hour, then two bucks for every hour thereafter.
I know Morissey is trying some sort of reductio ad absurdam gambit to make this sound outrageous, but he fails. People pay for parks -- even Federal parks! -- all the time. I paid to get in to Great Falls just up the road a couple of weeks ago.

There are very good reasons you don't charge people to sit on the Mall but might charge to a museum: it's difficult to exclude people from an open space; benefits to a landscape feature like the Mall accrue to people who are nearby in addition to people who are within; etc.

Morrissey concludes his post -- on a DC-specific website -- by asking his readers how they feel about paying to access the Smithsonian. This entirely misses the point. The question is how people in DC and in Madison and Gary and Albuquerque and the rest of the country feel about the Smithsonian being free.

Finally, I'll point out that the evidence from the UK, where many national musuems have switched from free admissions to paid admissions and back several times, is that when they are free more people do not visit. The same people visit more often, but you do not draw new visitors into the museum.

This seems counter-intuitive, but makes a lot of sense when you consider the cost of going to a museum is the cash entrance fee plus the time it takes to visit. Many people who do not find museum visitation worthwhile when the cost is [two hours + $5], will still find it unworthwhile at a cost of [two hours + $0].

Update: The Smithsonian responds to the proposal with some odd thinking about taxation:
In a sense, Americans already pay to visit the Smithsonian with their tax dollars, which provide about two-thirds of the Smithsonian’s annual budget. [...]

[An entrance fee would] deprive many families of the benefit they have earned with their tax dollars.
Instead of making everybody pay in advance on the off chance they may end up visiting, this proposal would just charge people who actually do visit.  You're not depriving anyone of things they've "earned."

You know what? I don't really have time to explain or even unpack the whole misconception here.  I give up.

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