Art should be for everyone, regardless of ability to pay.
Now at the Allentown Art Museum, it will be.
Admission to the museum will be free starting Aug. 27, funded through one of three final gifts from the Century Fund foundation and additional multi-year support from Lehigh Valley Health Network, and City Center Allentown with JB and Kathleen Reilly.
“I think financial access is always a barrier and a limitation for families,” said Max Weintraub, the museum’s president and CEO.
“We wanted to expand access to all our education programming. It’s really about institutional changes that we are trying to put in place so that we can continue to serve into the 21st century.”
The Century Fund was created in December 1985 by Morning Call Publisher Donald P. Miller, a year after he sold the former Call-Chronicle Newspapers to Times-Mirror Co. When he died in 1996, a majority of his estate was transferred to The Century Fund, with the mandate that the money be distributed within 25 years. As a result, the fund closed in 2021 and one of the three final gifts went to the museum.
Throughout its history, the Century Fund funneled more than $54 million to 139 nonprofits in the Lehigh Valley. The fund’s work included everything from small grants, such as for playground equipment in Alburtis, to major support for what is now the Allentown Arts District.
Admission to the museum will be free in perpetuity through drawing interest on 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 museums across Pennsylvania offer programs that reduce the cost of admission or have special days or events when admission is free.
“The Philadelphia Museum of Art, for example, is open free or ‘pay what you wish’ a couple of times each week,” Baker said. “There are also free admission programs at some museums for people who are enrolled in state programs to assist families below a particular income level.”
The Allentown Art Museum has offered visitors the opportunity to visit for free every Sunday as well as the third Thursday of the month. The museum has seen, by far, the most visitors on Sundays.
Michelle Stringer, chair of the museum’s board of trustees, said for years they have researched how to go to completely free admission because, as research shows, the greatest main barrier to going to a museum is economic.
“We think this is really going to have an impact on the quality of life in the Lehigh Valley,” Stringer said. “This is really monumental.”
Of course, eliminating paid admission isn’t the only piece in ensuring that museums are equitable.
“Museums clearly want more visitors and people from different communities walking through their doors,” Baker said. “And there is so much to do, like in our other community institutions such as schools, to provide a welcoming, safe environment to learn. This work does not end at the admission desk.”
Led by Weintraub, the museum has had a renewed dedication to telling the story of American art in an inclusive and relevant way, featuring more contemporary art and works by women, Black, Latinx, Latin American and indigenous artists.
On the day the museum goes free, it will also be an opportunity to see the first major “rehang” of the museum’s permanent collection in more than a decade. What visitors will see is a much more open space, which will allow the museum to have better flexibility to show never-before-seen pieces from the museum’s extensive collection.
“One of the challenges of being in an older building is that some of the spaces can feel smaller,” Weintraub said. “We have opened it up and reconfigured gallery walls, creating deeper sight lines into the space. That makes a big impact on the visitor experience.”
Like most museums, only a small fraction of Allentown’s extensive permanent collection is shown. An important segment of that collection, featuring a large representation of women and artists of color, is the museum’s textiles and works on paper. Those pieces can only be on view 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 the rugs, so there’s always something new to see while preserving the pieces.
On Aug, 27 and thereafter, visitors will simply come to the museum, receive a metal visitors’ button and walk around.
“Our principle mission is to continually strive to be an inclusive place,” Weintraub said. “Ultimately going free is really about that.”
Morning Call features reporter Jennifer Sheehan can be reached at 610-820-6628 or [email protected]