Nelson-Atkins fees for tours led by adult guides reflect changing financial landscape – KC STUDIO
In early September, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art docent Misty McNally (center) led a group tour of the museum’s “American Art Deco” exhibition, which runs through January 8. (photo by Jim Barcus)
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, responding to the economic tremors that have rocked the art world, announced in August that it would begin charging for adult-led tours that had been free since the program’s early days.
The charges began as Nelson-Atkins onsite visits resumed after the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“As we bring programs back to the site, we are carefully reviewing all of our offerings and looking for ways to make the museum more sustainable and uphold our commitment to be as accessible as possible to the widest population,” said Anne Manning. , the museum’s deputy director of learning and engagement.
To that end, the Nelson-Atkins “made the decision to charge for some of our adult experiences with guides,” she said.
Fees for regular tours are $100 for a minimum of two people and a maximum of 12. Regular tours include special exhibits, collection highlights, and the museum’s sculpture park. For a special exhibition, visitors must purchase exhibition tickets.
Fees for custom tours, which require guides to do additional research, are $300 for 2-12 people.
At the same time, the Nelson-Atkins is offering a new tour option known as the “Docent Spotlight,” where visitors can tour the museum at a scheduled time and meet a docent in a particular gallery at no charge.
Tours led by guides for school groups (which resumed on-site in April) will continue to be free, as will tours run by colleges and universities for degree-seeking students.
Nelson-Atkins partners, non-profits, and groups with demonstrated need may be eligible for tour discounts, and Nelson-Atkins members will receive a 20% discount.
The museum’s approximately 120 guides will continue to provide their services as unpaid volunteers.
JoAnn Axtell, who served as a Nelson-Atkins guide for around six years, said she was unhappy when she learned of the decision to charge a tour fee.
“Most of the teachers I spoke to weren’t either,” said Axtell, a retired educator. “We felt this might prevent some people from coming to spend time on a guided tour if there was a cost involved.”
But Axtell said it accepted the decision after museum staff explained the reasoning behind it. “There are costs involved, even if they don’t pay for guides. Even though the guides organize the tours, paid staff develop them. We work as a team. And there are the copying materials and costs.
Decades ago, such considerations probably didn’t attract much attention from Frances O’Donnell, Nelson-Atkins’ first director of education, who began developing the museum’s docent program in 1934. The first docents were members of the Kansas City Junior League. , Missouri, a women’s organization that advances women’s leadership for meaningful community impact through volunteerism, collaboration, and training. Their dress code stated that they would dress for their guiding duties as if they were “going to church or working in a bank”.
The impact of the pandemic
But in July 2020, at the height of COVID-19, the American Alliance of Museums warned that one in three museums “may close permanently as funding sources and financial reserves are depleted.”
Citing a survey of more than 750 museum directors, the Alliance said that “without short-term help from governments and private donors, hundreds of directors reported that their museums may not survive the financial crisis. caused by the pandemic.
The Alliance added that “of museums able to reopen, more than 40% plan to do so with reduced staff and will need to spend additional funds to ensure their ability to reopen safely.”
In October 2020, the Nelson-Atkins Museum announced it was cutting its staff by 15% and its budget by 25%, to approximately $26 million, due to the “debilitating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic”.
In a press release issued at the time, the Nelson-Atkins said donors continued to be generous with private donations and that he was granted a Payroll Protection Program loan, but his six-month (from mid-March to mid-September 2020) the closure due to COVID-19 had cut off income it would have received from event rentals, fundraising, ticketing, Rozelle Court Restaurant, parking fees and merchandise sales.
Even after it reopened, the museum suffered the effects of significantly lower attendance and the cancellation of all traveling exhibits, in-person tours, classes, public programs and festivals.
Last August, Manning said the Nelson-Atkins spoke with its docents and other museums before deciding to charge for some docent-led tours. “One of the things we’ve learned is that it’s a long-standing practice at museums across the country to charge for adult group visits,” she said.
Manning said the museum also conducted a price survey indicating willingness to pay for adult tours.
Axtell said she didn’t mind not being paid to give tours, despite the new charges.
“We are volunteers,” she says. “We do it because we love the art, or we love being at Nelson, or all of the above. The Nelson values us. They value our time; they use our time well. They are considerate and flexible. It’s just good to be connected to an institution of Nelson’s stature.
Find the right balance
Nelson-Atkins’ new visitation policy raised no eyebrows when I spoke with officials from other Kansas City-area museums.
Karen Gerety Folk, curator of education at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art in Overland Park, said the Nerman does not charge for guided tours, but such fees are not unusual.
“There are a wide variety of circumstances that museums across the country have found themselves in, trying to balance staffing needs with the demand for volunteers,” Folk said. “Anything that involves extra time for staff is a game to think about.”
Folk noted that unlike the Nelson-Atkins, the Nerman Museum receives taxpayer support because it is a department of Johnson County Community College, and as such is a public institution.
“Here at the college, we’re heavily supported by taxpayers,” Folk said. “I still hope that our neighboring institutions will find what works best for them.”
The Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art also does not charge for guided tours.
“The Kemper Museum never charges for our programming,” said Anne Gatschet, the museum’s educator for docents, schools and tours. “Everything is mission-driven. And the mission says that we educate in a free and welcoming environment.
Gatschet added that she “wasn’t trying to say that no other museum is welcoming.”
Gatschet noted that Kemper’s docent program is supported by the family of the late Mary Beth Smith, who joined the museum’s docent program in 2006.
“Our donors and members are greatly responsible for our ability to have free programming,” she said.
But Gatschet said charging for tours led by docents was standard practice. “Often it is an important source of income for the survival of the organization. Relying on volunteers is a very special form of economy, and it is not easy to sustain.
Gatschet said the Kemper Museum has the advantage of being “kind of a small museum with a kind of family atmosphere, and everyone knows each other. It’s an incredible gift that a lot of people in this town don’t want to see go away. I don’t see any signs that we’re going to start charging for any of our programs. »
Regardless of their differences, art museums continue to rely on guides. Kemper is recruiting a wider range of volunteers for its docent program, Gatschet said. “We want to see a group of volunteers who look around the room at each other and see a lot of different types of faces and backgrounds and hear different accents, just like the art on the walls depicts.”
In September, the Nelson-Atkins Museum hosted the 2022 National Girl Guides Symposium. Attendees were expected from more than 100 North American museums and cultural institutions.
When COVID-19 put a stop to in-person museum visits, guides across the country hosted virtual tours. And while patrons and guides are excited to roam the actual museums again, virtual tours will always be part of the mix.
The Nelson-Atkins will continue to offer virtual tours, but on a more limited basis, Manning said. “We believe that the virtual and the digital are here to stay in museums. We will continue to adapt and evolve as our world continues to change.