The question of what to charge museum visitors for admission, or whether such institutions should just be free to the public, can make administrators feel defensive. They will boast of the number of visitors who come during the year and for special exhibitions, of new acquisitions and new buildings, or of donations of cash and valuable objects—but no one wants to talk about raising the cost of getting through the door. That’s simply a solution to the problem referred to as “the budget.” Charging visitors to come through the doors keeps them open for everyone: remove the admissions revenue, and these institutions could face a shortage in necessary funds. So blame the high ticket price on the costs of maintaining a big building, staffing it, and providing reasonable care for the thousands of objects within it. Wish it weren’t this way.

“Museums wish they didn’t have to charge so much, because they know that a high price of entry acts as a barrier to people with less discretionary income,” said David Ross, the former director of the Whitney Museum and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (both of which currently charge $25 for an adult ticket). Still, they do charge as much as they believe the market can bear, and many of them take the position of Philippe de Montebello, the former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, that “people tend to value what they pay for.”

One can detect a certain level of discomfort in ticket pricing from the wide assortment of discounts offered.

Some museums have gone the other direction, lowering or getting rid of admission fees altogether. Most recently, the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, after a $10 million gift by the president of its board, Carolyn Powers, has decided to no longer charge for admission. According to a spokeswoman for the museum, Powers “has been interested in culture’s ability to transform lives” and did not want an admission barrier to limit that potential.

Back in 1992, the American Alliance of Museums found that 36 percent of all museums in the United States charged an admission fee. By 2008, the AAM reported that only a third of all museums were free to the public, with the average ticket being $10 for adults. On a national basis, admissions make up between 2 and 4 percent of overall museum revenues, although some have a notably higher split: these include the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (6.4 percent), New York’s Museum of Modern Art (9.4 percent), the Art Institute of Chicago (13 percent), the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (14 percent), and the New Britain Museum of American Art (16 percent).

Museums, of course, cover a broad category, encompassing tens of thousands of historical and scientific establishments, homes and estates of interest, botanical gardens, and zoos. Some of them are enormous institutions, while others are quite small operations, so generalizations such as “All museums should be free” or “Museum admissions should be no more than $10” won’t get very far. I don’t know what, if anything, museums should charge. Frankly, neither do their administrators.

One can detect a certain level of discomfort in ticket pricing from the wide assortment of discounts offered. A number of museums have instituted what is called “variable pricing,” so that people who might be put off by a high admission fee are able to visit at a lower cost. For example, the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, California, has a price of $12 for adults; seniors, college students, and active service members of the military owe $8; children ages six to seventeen pay $6; and those five years of age or younger are allowed in free of charge. In addition, the third Sunday of every month is free to all. The Milwaukee Art Museum makes itself free to all Wisconsin K–12 teachers, while the Autry Museum of the American West is free to veterans, police officers, and park rangers. The Philadelphia Museum allows art students at a group of area colleges to visit at no charge. Somewhat more byzantine is New York’s Morgan Library & Museum, which ordinarily charges adults $22 but makes the McKim rooms (J. Pierpont Morgan’s actual library, the study, the rotunda, and the librarian’s office) free from 3–5 p.m. on Tuesdays, 7–9 p.m. on Fridays, and 4–6 p.m. on Sundays. Mark your calendars.

The individuals for whom the price of admission is a consideration, by contrast, might only benefit from the reduced price once or twice a year, which is why abolishing entry fees only goes so far in actually benefitting the museum.

Museums exist for the benefit of the public, and most are not for profit. But admission fees, especially at higher prices, act as a barrier to the large segment of the populace that views, say, a $25 charge per person to enter the Metropolitan Museum, the Whitney, the Guggenheim, the Barnes Collection, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and so forth, as a lot of money—especially if spouse and children are in tow. A family of four might pay $74 ($25 per adult, $12 per  child) to visit the Met, which could be enough to sway them from going to the museum at all—or lead them to opt for, say, the pay-what-you-wish Museum of Natural History across Central Park. (Certainly, dinosaurs are an easier sell to children than European paintings.)

Free admission does create a budgetary hole. A source of obvious revenue is lost, and there tends also to be a drop in museum memberships, as many regular visitors become members in order to avoid paying an entry fee every time they come. (When the Dallas Museum of Art eliminated general admission fees in 2012, it induced the former members to continue paying annually by offering these new “partners” complimentary parking, exhibition previews, and guided tours of the museum’s grounds and collections.) Museums often scrap admission fees when an individual—Carolyn Powers, in the L.A. MOCA’s case—or a corporation makes a sizeable gift to offset the lost revenue. Agustin Arteaga, the Director of the Dallas Museum of Art, explained:

The previous $10 general admission ticket comprised approximately five percent of annual revenue before 2013. We have received support from individuals, corporations, and foundations towards this amount and have also seen growth in earned income from our cafes, parking garage, and Museum store, which goes towards making free general admission possible, but does not fully make up for that revenue. Therefore we must always continue to grow and diversify the Museum’s revenue streams in order to support free general admission.

Losing the entry fee did have the hoped-for benefits, he claimed: “Our 2016 visitor research indicates growth in the size as well as the diversity of our visitors since 2008. Most dramatically, this includes a 35 percent increase in first-time museum visitors and a 29 percent increase in minority audiences.”

Gary Vikan, the former director of Baltimore’s Walters Art Museum, noted that his museum’s decision to eliminate admission fees in 2006 led to an immediate increase in attendance “by 45 percent, and minority participation went up by a factor of three.” But that greater influx of visitors didn’t pay for itself. People came for free but didn’t spend more—at the restaurant or gift shop, for instance—while there. The Metropolitan Museum recently found that, given the option of paying what they wish, a growing number of museumgoers shell out quite little: admissions revenue was “a little lower” in real dollars in 2016 than it was in 2004 per Daniel Weiss, the museum’s president and chief executive officer. As a result, the Met opted to make its pay-what-you-wish admissions policy only applicable to New York State residents and students with valid IDs in the tri-state region. Adults otherwise pay $25.

Another economic reason to keep high admission prices, some argue, is that the principal beneficiaries would not be first-time visitors for whom the current price seems high, but rather the more financially comfortable individuals who ordinarily visit these institutions. That demographic tends to be wealthier and better educated, and its members already have a level of comfort within the walls of art museums. The price break, then, would go to the least needy group: established regulars don’t require the incentive that lowering or dropping the ticket price would provide. The individuals for whom the price of admission is a consideration, by contrast, might only benefit from the reduced price once or twice a year, which is why abolishing entry fees only goes so far in actually benefitting the museum.

Baltimore’s other principal art institution, the Baltimore Museum of Art, eliminated entry fees at the same time as the Walters Art Museum. But even with the draw of free admission, the two have struggled to attract museumgoers in the time since. Despite an initial period of increased attendance once entry became free, the number of visitors has since declined at both institutions, 18.6 percent over the last fifteen years at the Walters and 12.7 percent during that same period at the BMA. The cause? Difficult to say: the shifting demographics in the city, the fluctuating taste of the public, and the rapidly changing expectations for cultural centers at large could all have played a part. But one essential fact remains clear. The problem of making a cultural institution more appealing to the public goes beyond the price of getting in—it depends equally on what is on view in the museum itself.

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