If it's Friday night in Buffalo, museum-goers and gallery lovers can leave their wallets at home.
As part of a national marketing trend aimed at ushering more people into cultural institutions, the city is now home to some brand of “Free Friday” event every week of the month. But as good as that may sound to cash-strapped culture-seekers, it could be the wrong approach to boosting attendance.
Four of these events are sponsored by M&T Bank, a huge proponent of the free Fridays approach. The bank, known for its support of local art and cultural groups, now sponsors free events at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery (First Fridays), the Burchfield Penney Art Center (Second Fridays), the Buffalo History Museum (Third Fridays) and Buffalo Arts Studio (Fourth Fridays).
The ascendant free Fridays business plan here emerged in part from M&T's genuine desire to shore up the finances of local cultural institutions.
“The concept of these free Fridays allows for an ongoing perception of the activity in our culturals,” said Nancy Brock, vice president and program director at the M&T Charitable Foundation. “We've been getting a little away from sponsoring just exhibits and trying to support events or initiatives that create more of an ongoing buzz about a cultural.”
Since the Albright-Knox scaled back its free Fridays program from a weekly event to a monthly one, Brock said, it's seen increased revenue from memberships, admissions, its gift shop and its café.
As corporate supporters of the arts go, no other company in this area gives as much as M&T, and for that the bank deserve a great deal of praise. But as a long-term strategy for building audiences or improving the fiscal stability of cultural institutions, the monthly free Friday philosophy is myopic at best.
What the program really boils down to is a rickety incentive for people to buy memberships. The hope is that by entering the Albright-Knox on a free Friday, seeing how much it costs to take your family into a special exhibition versus how much it costs for a one-year family membership, the smart cultural consumer will opt for the membership.
In that way, it's a little like the free HBO or Showtime previews that Time Warner provides in the hopes you'll get hooked on “True Blood” or “Homeland” and then sign up for the full subscription.
If our taxpayer-funded museums were for-profit enterprises rather than the public educational institutions they were designed to be, that approach would make perfect sense. But as it stands, the once-a-month free Friday approach serves as a quarter measure toward solving the mammoth public access problem faced by places such as the Burchfield Penney, the Albright-Knox and the History Museum in a city that remains one of the poorest in the United States.
This brand of incentivized museum-going encourages institutions to develop audiences independently of one another, when a collaborative approach would be more effective in creating the critical mass these institutions collectively desire.
Corporate funders such as M&T should pay closer attention to the mounting pile of data that shows why smartly executed free museum admission in places such as Minneapolis and Kansas City works and why it seems poised to do so at Maxwell Anderson's Dallas Museum of Art.
The intentions behind M&T's ubiquitous free Fridays events are obviously good. But as a viable, long-term strategy to increase the community's access to the museums public taxes fund and the financial health of those institutions, the concept needs a lot more work.