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Someone Forgot to Pay the Water Bill

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Judging by some of the laws on the books, I can’t say that I have complete faith in the governing abilities of Chicago’s City Council. Some of these laws include: 1) It’s illegal to protest naked unless you are under 17 years of age, 2) Eating at a place that is on fire is – you guessed it – illegal, and 3) fishing while riding on a giraffe is also a no-no (would love to know the story behind that one). Needless to say, even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while, and the City Council has found theirs.

Last week, I was one of several bloggers who wrote about the proposed admissions hike at the Art Institute of Chicago. Apparently the City Council agrees that this sudden and significant leap in entry fees is more than a little unwarranted. In response to the AIC’s actions, Alderman Ed Burke of the fighting 14th and Ald. Ginger Rugai(19th) have proposed an interesting condition:   any museum that charges city residents more than $10 for admission “shall be ineligible for any public subsidy.” According to the Chicago Sun-Times:  “For decades, churches, museums, hospitals and other non-profits have received free water from the city. They also get free building permits and waivers of license and inspection fees.” Essentially, if a museum charges Chicagoans – whose tax dollars provided the Art Institute with a $6.6 million Park District subsidy last year – more than $10 to peruse their cultural offerings, then the water gets shut off.

On the whole this seems like a rather reasonable compromise. Here’s why:

  • If residents of the city are already contributing millions of dollars to the museum through tax dollars, it only seems fair that the financial burdens of a museum should not fall squarely on their shoulders.
  • Museums should reward their core audience, which frequently consists of the residents of the city or town that the museum calls home, and a reduced city resident admission price is a logical and easy way to provide loyal visitors with a benefit.
  • The Art Institute is a public institution and thereby a participant in an unspoken give-and-take with Chicago and its residents. For example,  the city will provide free water to a museum that offers a significant cultural outlet for residents. Or, a museum will receive Park District subsidies if it provide x number of free days each year. Or, the city will waive certain fees and permit requirements if a museum serves as a beacon in the city’s tourism appeal. Essentially, by introducing such an extreme hike in admissions fees, the Art Institute has violated that unspoken agreement.
  • This proposition introduces some accountability into the decision-making process of museums. This is not to say that every decision a museum makes should be approved by the city council/governing body, nothing would get done. However, museums need to know that when they make a decision that drastically impacts the residents and visitors who make the institution relevant that they will have to answer to someone. A museum holds items in a public trust. What good is that if the public can’t afford to come see, appreciate, and learn from those items?

One question I have to raise is how did Ald. Burke and Rugai come to the $10 mark? I would be interested to know why $10 is any less arbitrary than the $18 set by the Art Institute? Without any details to flesh out either number, I will have to take comfort in Burke’s statement that he’s willing to compromise with the museum (now there is the City Council I remember).

So, the City Council just might be in the right on this one. My advice to the Art Institute would be to reconsider raising their admission prices. Then again, maybe the museum could charge their visitors another $2 to use the port-a-potties they brought in when the water was shut off.

One Response to “Someone Forgot to Pay the Water Bill”

  1. Abraham Ritchie on March 19th, 2009

    There are some problems and oversights with this blog entry. You state:

    “Or, a museum will receive Park District subsidies if it provide x number of free days each year. Or, the city will waive certain fees and permit requirements if a museum serves as a beacon in the city’s tourism appeal. Essentially, by introducing such an extreme hike in admissions fees, the Art Institute has violated that unspoken agreement.”

    When actually the AIC has the entire month of Feb. free, Thur. and Fri. evenings all summer free too, plus the city passes. It also is very notable that all special exhibits will be included in admission, prior to this, if you were seeing shows like “Jasper Johns: Gray,” “Edward Hopper,” etc. you were paying around $18 anyways.

    Also, you say that “if a museum serves as beacon of city tourism” then the city services should remain free. Uh, yeah, I would say the AIC is a beacon of tourism. By many surveys it’s in the top three tourist attractions.

    So apparently, according to the logic here, there is no problem with the AIC’s free services, since it is both a cultural outlet, provides free days and is a major tourist draw.

    You might also want to mention that every single other museum in Chicago has admission in excess of $10.

    And, if this blog is truly published in Chicago, everyone knows what’s really fiscally hurting Chicago’s citizens, is not the art museum, it’s our incredibly high taxes and fees on everything. It’s ironic that a politician is grandstanding about a museum admission fee when citizens are daily affected by Chicago’s ridiculous sales tax, the HIGHEST in the nation!! What about Gov. Quinn’s proposal to raise income tax by 50%? Where’s the outrage there? Or the CTA’s fare increase, with more increases on the way?

    Ironically, the rise in admission price should fuel a demand for MORE state, city and federal funding, not less. That’s how Europe’s museums operate and are mostly free to the public.

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