The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and its ticket prices

A recent entry in the Houston Press blog Art Attack takes a very dim view of the admission fees at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The post begins with a commentary about the (mis)adventure of artist Payam Sharifi, originally from Houston but now based in Paris, France:

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 [New York’s Museum of Modern Art] 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.

Why would that be? Let’s dig a little deeper.

One reason the Louvre in particular is able to charge a low rate is that the French government, at least as recently as 2008, supplies a little over half of the museum’s budget (US$180 million of US$350 million). New York’s Museum of Modern Art is not dependent on government funding at all, but maintains a budget with around US$155 million in expenses in 2011 with slightly more in revenue (see page 18). MFAH‘s budget is a paltry $52 million.

There’s also visitor count to consider. The Louvre attracts about 5.5 million visitors per year, and is the most visited museum in the world. MoMA gets 2.5 million visitors per year. MFAH gets only 2 million, and it’s unclear how many of those qualify for free general admission: everyone visiting on Thursday (supported by a grant), children under 5, and library card holders aged 6 to 18.

At first glance, I’m surprised the ticket prices aren’t even higher at MFAH; intuition tells me there’s probably more to it, as building upkeep, labor, and general expenses involved in running a museum can’t possibly be more expensive here, in general, than they are in NYC or Paris.

It’s possible MFAH could find a way to lower ticket prices, but it’s a topic on which I’d have to do a lot more research to do for a typical post on this blog. I’d certainly like to see it happen, if only to see fewer posts of this sort from local journalists and bloggers. Houston’s flagship arts museum should not be more expensive than the Louvre and for it to be so jeopardizes Houston’s standing as a regional culture center.