Visiting Boston this weekend? You can have tea at the Ritz-Carlton for $14.50 (including scones, fruit bread and fruit tart), eat a roast beef dinner at the landmark Durgin Park Restaurant for $12.95 (for a 16-ounce cut) or visit the aquarium for $11.
Or you can pay $17.50 to see "Monet in the 20th Century" at the Museum of Fine Arts. Add a service charge of up to $4 if you buy your dated-and-timed ticket by phone, as most people do.
In a scale unimaginable just a few years ago, art lovers seeking to see masterpieces at museums frequently face sticker shock. Boston's museum, which normally charges $10 for adults, may have the record of the moment, but other museums are not far behind. The Art Institute of Chicago is asking $14 on weekends for "Mary Cassatt: Modern Woman." The San Diego Museum of Art charged $15 this summer for "Monet: Paintings of Giverny from the Musee Marmottan." Last year the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum asked the highest price so far in New York, $15 for the Robert Rauschenberg retrospective that filled its uptown and downtown galleries. (In every case, service charges for advance-purchase tickets are tacked on.)
When the Los Angeles County Museum of Art opens its doors to "Van Gogh's van Goghs" in January, weekend adult visitors will have to pay $20, plus service charges. Weekday tickets will be $17.50.
"Van Gogh is costing us many millions of dollars," said Andrea L. Rich, president of the museum, refusing to be more specific about the amount being paid to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, which is lending the works while it is closed for renovation, or about the show's total cost.
"It's the most expensive show we've ever put on," Ms. Rich said. "The question was, could we afford it?" The only way to say yes, she said, was to raise the price of admission.
At art museums around the country, capitalism is combining with curatorial ambitions, and the result is blockbuster prices for blockbuster exhibitions. As art prices have jumped sharply over the last two decades, museums say, so have the costs of security, insurance, shipping, catalogues, ticketing, marketing and other expenses related to mounting a show. Participation fees, the term used for sharing the closely guarded costs of organizing and borrowing works, have also risen steeply.
For institutions just to break even, ticket prices have to go up, museum directors contend. And yet the crowds go.
"How much does the Metropolitan Opera cost, around $180?" said J. Carter Brown, chairman emeritus of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, who says museums are still "a bargain."
Met opera seats do cost more, $25 to $250, depending on the location, day and production. But while no organization surveys museum prices for special exhibitions, they do seem to be climbing faster than those of for-profit arts attractions. At the movies, the average ticket price in the United States was $4.59 in 1997, up from $4.22 in 1990, and on Broadway, $48.59 last season, up from $36.47 in 1990-91.
And along with the higher prices come a few perils that museum professionals are well aware of, starting with the chronic complaint that museums cater to the elite. "The real question is whether it is changing the nature of who goes to museums, which it very well may be," said Stephen E. Weil, an emeritus senior scholar at the Smithsonian Institution's Center for Museum Studies.
Another pitfall is more subtle: either ticket prices for special exhibitions will keeping rising, regardless of the cost of staging each exhibition, or ticket prices will bounce up and down, signaling the relative value of a particular artist, perhaps falsely because the market value of an artist's work is only part of the cost equation of putting on a show.
Ranking the Artists By Ticket Prices
The Philadelphia Museum of Art, for example, considered that it might be sending an unfortunate message about Eugene Delacroix this year when, after asking $12.50 for its spectacular Cezanne retrospective in 1996, it set a $10 fee for its current Delacroix show. But it decided to go ahead no matter how people construed it, said Gail Harrity, the museum's chief operating officer, because the charges reflected the costs of the exhibition.
"That may not be a good message," said Mr. Brown, who is chairman of Ovation, a cable television arts network, "but it's a realistic message. It's a market economy, and you do charge more for caviar than you do for hot pastrami. But that doesn't mean it tastes better."
So far, if the number of people buying tickets is any guide, the public seems to be swallowing the higher prices without complaint. Sales of Monet tickets, for example, have been robust ever since the Museum of Fine Arts made them available in August. More than 400,000 have been bought, ahead of projections for the show, which runs until Dec. 27. Other museums report similar experiences.
Museum administrators say the prices are unavoidable. "People who love art don't like to see that there's a business behind it," Ms. Rich said. "They like to think there's a great subsidy from the sky to allow us to do this without charging these prices. I wish it were that way, too -- but it's not."
The Monet show provides a measure of how prices have escalated. When the same museum put on "Monet in the 90's" in 1990, it charged $9. In today's dollars, that would be $11.22, far below the $17.50 weekend and $15 weekday tab for the current Monet show.
Trying to Compete With Movie Tickets
Even museums that have not approached the $15 ticket level have significantly raised their fee for special exhibitions. The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, for example, normally charges $3 for adults but is asking $10 for special shows like "A Grand Design: The Art of the Victoria and Albert Museum," now on view. The Phillips Collection in Washington doubled its charge to $10 from $5 for its current "Impressionists in Winter" exhibition.
In years past museums strove to keep admissions charges low, and many still do. Several, even some big institutions like the Cleveland Museum of Art, are still free. Others have been raising general admission prices gradually, trying to stay below or at the cost of a movie ticket, the old standard.
Before costs rose so much, museums largely ignored pricing strategy or set ticket prices on a seat-of-the-pants basis, partly because they did not try to associate the money spent on an exhibition with what it brought in. But museums are growing sophisticated about the real costs of an exhibition; many subject individual shows to rigorous profit-and-loss analysis. They also have begun to look around, seeing that symphonies, theaters and sports centers were charging high admission prices as a matter of course.
Hence the price increases. "All of this is making up for when they didn't relate costs to prices at all," Mr. Weil said.
Museums say they are still trying to hold the line, some more successfully than others. In New York, the Metropolitan Museum of Art's director, Philippe de Montebello, decided years ago that the Met would not sell special tickets for special exhibitions but would retain a standard suggested donation (now $8) for admission to the entire museum. That way, Mr. de Montebello says, the museum is relieved of the pressure to stage one profit-making exhibition after another.
The Museum of Modern Art, meanwhile, does add a $3 surcharge for special exhibitions, like the recent Bonnard and the current Jackson Pollock shows, making admission $12.50, which is still behind other institutions' charges.
But it was a show at the Modern that may have opened the floodgates. "A critical thing occurred during the Matisse show at MOMA" in 1992, Mr. Weil said. "There were scalpers on 53d Street selling tickets for $50, and that made people think that one way to go is charging what the market will bear." The Modern was asking $12.
(Scalpers were soon getting much more, in fact; for its Monet retrospective in 1995, the Art Institute of Chicago was mobbed with nearly a million visitors and scalpers were reportedly getting $200 and more for a ticket that cost $12.50 on weekends, $10 during the week. For the "Van Gogh's van Goghs" show in Washington, the National Gallery of Art has "sold out" its tickets, all free because it is a taxpayer-supported institution, and scalpers are asking up to $100 a ticket and $125 for Thanksgiving weekend.)
Some people think the price increases really began in earnest with the 1996 Cezanne retrospective in Philadelphia. Although service charges put tickets above $15, a capacity crowd of nearly 550,000 people went.
The Guggenheim, for one, was watching, said Laura Miller, its director of visitor services. Once Philadelphia met no price resistance, the Guggenheim decided to set its charge for the Rauschenberg show at $15. Boston's Museum of Fine Arts did likewise for "Picasso: The Early Years" last year. The race was on.
Museums insist they are not raking in profits with these shows but are budgeting to break even or make a small profit if the draw is really big. To reach the less-than-affluent, most of them give discounts to senior citizens, students and school groups; some allot one day or one evening to "pay as you wish" visitors.
But even if high prices are an economic necessity, some museums admit that they have an ulterior motive when they set them. It's called membership. Administrators hope people will join the museum for $40, $60 or more a year as a way to get free tickets to the special and regular attractions. "Membership leads to a high-quality relationship," said Malcolm Rogers, the director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. "We don't want people to be exhibition junkies; we want them in all the galleries."
The strategy often works. By the time the 1995 Monet retrospective in Chicago closed, the Art Institute's membership roster had jumped by 65,000 to 157,000. In Boston, the museum began its fiscal year in July 1997, with 57,000 members, and now, after the Picasso show and in the midst of the Monet show, there are more than 85,000. In Los Angeles, during its current show, "Picasso: Masterworks from the Museum of Modern Art," membership has climbed by 12,000 to 73,000 members.
The trick then becomes retaining them. Mr. Rogers says he is doing that by paying more attention to visitor accommodations. To allow people to actually see the Monet show, for example, the paintings are spread out in more gallery space than any previous exhibition. Higher weekend charges are also an attempt at crowd management.
"We're trying to create lifelong members," Mr. Rogers said. "People should perceive value, and the key is an exciting program."
Which is precisely the problem, some experts like Mr. de Montebello worry. Museums, they say, should not simply program what is popular, lest the result be all shows about Monet, van Gogh, the Impressionists, Picasso, Egypt and gold.
Creating Excitement And Justification
"I want to balance the museum's finances, I don't want to be a blockbuster junkie," Mr. Rogers counters. "But you need a Monet every now and again to create excitement."
And to justify higher prices. Mr. Rogers is among the many who do not think prices will fall, as they did in Philadelphia. "It makes a negative statement if you charge a $5 surcharge for Monet and $2 for Cassatt," Mr. Rogers said, a reference to the Cassatt show that will open in Boston in February after its run in Chicago. To make up for the increases, Mr. Rogers said, occasionally the museum will not levy a surcharge on a special exhibition, citing its 1996 exhibition of photographs by Herb Ritts as an example.
But the situation is still in flux. For example, the Guggenheim, which after insisting that people pay a total of $15 for the Rauschenberg exhibition in both branches, has decided to let people buy separate $12 tickets for its special exhibitions uptown, $8 tickets for the accompanying downtown shows and $15 for a combination ticket.
How high can museum prices go? "Ask the Red Sox," Mr. Rogers said. In 1998, the team charged $30 for a box seat and $20 for the grandstand (though an upper bleacher seat could be had for $10). Prices for 1999, Fenway Park's recording says, have not been announced.