Art should be for everyone, regardless of ability to pay.
Now, at the Allentown Art Museum, it will.
Admission to the museum will be free from August 27, funded by one of the last three donations from the Century Fund.
“I think financial access is always a barrier and a limitation for families,” said Max Weintraub, president and CEO of the museum.
“We wanted to expand access to all of our educational programs. These are really about institutional changes that we are trying to put in place so that we can continue to serve in the 21st century.
The Century Fund was established in December 1985 by Morning Call publisher Donald P. Miller, a year after he sold the former Call-Chronicle newspapers to Times-Mirror Co. Upon his death in 1996, the majority of his estate was transferred to The Century. Fund, with a mandate that the money be distributed within 25 years. As a result, the fund closed in 2021 and one of the last three donations went to the museum.
Throughout its history, the Century Fund has channeled more than $54 million to 139 nonprofit organizations in the Lehigh Valley. The fund’s work included everything from small grants, such as for playground equipment at Alburtis, to major support for what is now the Allentown Arts District.
Admission to the museum will be free in perpetuity thanks to interest from the $2 million Allentown Art Museum Endowment Fund, which will be administered by the Lehigh Valley Community Foundation.
It’s unclear how unique Allentown’s free admission will be. Rusty Baker, executive director of the Pennsylvania Museums Association, said his organization does not track admission prices, but Pennsylvania museums offer programs that lower the cost of admission or hold special days or events when free entry.
“The Philadelphia Museum of Art, for example, is open for free or ‘pay what you want’ a few times a week,” Baker said. “There are also free admission programs at some museums for people enrolled in public programs to help families below a certain income level.”
The Allentown Museum of Art offered visitors the opportunity to visit for free every Sunday as well as the third Thursday of the month. The museum saw, by far, the most visitors on Sunday.
Michelle Stringer, chair of the museum’s board of trustees, said for years they have been researching how to access completely free admission because, as research shows, the biggest barrier to visiting a museum is economics.
“We think this is going to really impact the quality of life in the Lehigh Valley,” Stringer said. “It’s really monumental.”
Of course, the elimination of paid admissions is not the only element guaranteeing the fairness of museums.
“Museums clearly want more visitors and people from different communities to come through their doors,” Baker said. “And there is so much to do, as in our other community institutions like schools, to provide a welcoming and safe environment for learning. This work does not stop at the admissions office.
Led by Weintraub, the museum is recommitted to telling the story of American art in an inclusive and relevant way, with more contemporary works of art and works by artists who are women, black, Latin, Latin Americans and Native Americans.
The day the museum is free will also be the chance to see the first major ‘rehang’ of the museum’s permanent collection in over a decade. What visitors will see is a much more open space, which will allow the museum to have greater flexibility in showing never-before-seen pieces from the museum’s extensive collection.
“One of the challenges of being in an older building is that some spaces can feel smaller,” Weintraub said. “We opened it up and reconfigured the walls of the gallery, creating deeper sight lines in the space. This has a big impact on the visitor experience.
Like most museums, only a small portion of Allentown’s extensive permanent collection is on display. An important segment of this collection, with a broad representation of women and artists of color, is the museum’s textiles and works on paper. These pieces can only be displayed for a few months at a time because their exposure to light must be limited.
A good example is the museum’s collection of Navajo rugs. Now, with the new space, the museum can rotate pieces such as carpets, so there’s always something new to see while preserving the pieces.
On August 27 and thereafter, visitors will simply come to the museum, receive a metal visitor button, and walk around.
“Our core mission is to continually strive to be an inclusive place,” Weintraub said. “At the end of the day, becoming free is really what it is.”
Morning Call features reporter Jennifer Sheehan can be reached at 610-820-6628 or [email protected]