The ‘Art should Be Free’ Controversy

by Keith Diggle


In 1988 I wrote an article for The Independent newspaper on why I thought art galleries should not only charge for admission but should also sell tickets in advance. My views were not entirely well received by the paper’s readers – but times change. This is what the article said:


…Museums and art galleries are being forced to consider charging for admission because they do not have enough money. Apart from a certain distaste at the thought of mixing art and cash and the belief that it is morally wrong to expect people to pay, the main worry of our custodians is that if admission charges are imposed attendances will fall (so the objective of bringing art to the people is lost); and if attendances fall the income will then not bridge the gap between expenditure and subsidy (so why bother?).

…In fact, there is no moral issue. Why shouldn’t we pay something for our pleasures here as we do with the performing arts?

…And there is no evidence that making art free increases attendances. On the contrary, I believe that if the right system for making charges were introduced, attendances would rise. Those who would then attend would be from more or less the same socio/economic groups that had previously attended. Such a system could allow free entrance to people who were badly off and would have the power to increase attendance from them as well. It is a matter of confidence and know-how, and a ‘pay at the door if you feel inclined’ system is not the way to do it.

…Why do theatres sell tickets in advance? One answer is that theatres like to have their money in advance, but that is not the main reason. They sell tickets because they do not trust the fickle public to keep the promise it made to itself when it first decided that this was a show worth going to see. The theatres know that at the first sign of rain or fine weather, political unrest or stability, illness or wellness, the public will think of something else to do.

…Great importance is attached to the marketing of tickets. Pick up the telephone, walk into a travel branch of W H Smith, pay by credit card – the path to purchase is smooth and easy. The philosophy is simple and wholly realistic: the moment that someone wants to attend a show, obtain a commitment from them.

…A ticket system also implies, in a subtle but effective way, that the supply of experiences available to be bought is limited. If you don’t buy it now, you may not get it at all. No one accuses the theatres of being inaccessible – their trick is to make themselves appear accessible now but possibly inaccessible later. In contrast, you can walk into most museums and art galleries at any time; they are so accessible you can go later, and so you probably do not go at all.

…I am suggesting that our great museums and art galleries should not only charge for admission but also sell tickets in advance. In place of the ever-open doors we would have a series of events – Monday morning, Friday afternoon, Thursday late opening, Saturday matinée. The period covered by the ticket is not as important as the fact that it has a beginning and an end, just like a performance. Tickets are on sale at the door (subject to availability), or from the usual agents. Call this number for credit-card booking. ‘We’d better book our tickets for the Tate now, or we won’t get in.’

…Prices need not be constant. One exhibition might be priced higher than another, but certain times of the week might be deemed less attractive than others, so a Monday-morning ticket for a blockbuster show could well be cheaper than a Saturday-afternoon ticket for something less exciting. As in the performing arts, varying prices are used to encourage a spread in attendance, to avoid queues and crushes on one hand and emptiness on another.

…And what of the poor? What of the school parties? The arts organisations can be as generous as they choose to be: they can give the tickets away if they like. They will be giving away something of value and they can choose which part of the week it suits them best to be generous with. It would not be beyond the limits of imagination to devise ways of making these gifts without depriving people of their dignity. Such a system would surely increase attendance from old and young, the unemployed and the low paid, for they too would place more value on the gift of something that others had to pay for.

…It could work. I think it probably would work. Can you imagine, ticket touts outside the Victoria and Albert Museum?



In my book ARTS MARKETING I add to the article: At the heart of it was the idea that the ticket is more than just a piece of paper with printing, more than just a receipt; at the time of purchase it is the product, it is something tangible, something to acquire in order to guarantee a future experience. The availability of the product – or proxy-product – is essential to the effective operation of marketing for if publicity sets out to make people want to to buy something the sales function must bring it close enough so that they may consummate their desire to purchase more-or-less immediately. The buying desire is volatile and so you have to catch customers while they are hot or you lose them. My feeling has always been that art galleries have a vast potential market of people who are regularly excited by what they see advertised and what they read, hear and see about exhibitions but who are stopped from attending by the barriers of distance, time and all the distractions of life. These people need to be sold tickets then and there. Catch a person with two tickets to a top musical not turning up on the night!

The notion of limited supply that the sale of tickets in advance implies is a hard one to get across to art galleries. My point is that selling tickets in advance implies limited supply and this has the effect of making people move a little faster towards purchase. Whether there is or there is not a heavy demand for tickets will only be known at the event itself. There are times when the press of people at an exhibition does create a limit – but the customer doesn’t know it until it is too late and this experience does nothing for his relationship with the gallery. When the article was published one letter writer pointed out that advance ticket selling was particularly valuable as a system of crowd-control for very popular exhibitions. This is another advantage of the approach because customers may be guided towards times when the gallery is less busy and when the experience they are buying will be better.

Have the galleries made progress in the past five years? I think so. When you see Royal Academy exhibitions being sold via Ticketmaster and tickets for specified viewing periods being sold at the Tate Gallery you are seeing progress all right. Well done!