MCA weighs up end to free admission in face of budget crisis

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Key points

  • Museum of Contemporary Art is reviewing its policy of free entry fees as state funding fails to keep pace with its running costs.  
  • Since its opening at Circular Quay in 1991, it’s welcomed 19 million visitors to its shows celebrating living artists and is tracking to see 900,000 visitors by year’s end.   
  • MCA director says salary costs now make up 50 per cent of its cost base. Its annual electricity bill is set to rise next year by more than 50 per cent. 
  • State funding in 2023 has remained largely static from $3.5m per annum in 2013 to $4.19 million per annum in 2023.

The Museum of Contemporary Art Australia is considering paid public entry for the first time in more than two decades as it struggles with spiking operational costs and a decade of what it says has been chronic underfunding.

The Sydney waterfront art gallery – the launchpad for the careers of artists such as Lindy Lee, Tracey Moffatt and Shaun Gladwell – says it may have no choice but to scrap free general admission without an urgent lift to federal and state government grants.

Suzanne Cotter, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art.Credit: Louise Kennerley

The MCA is the second cultural institution to go public with its financial struggles in the aftermath of the September NSW budget, and as the Minns government prepares to release its arts and creative industries policy to set its priorities for the sector.

The Art Gallery of NSW this month flagged budget cuts if it failed to secure millions of dollars in extra funding to cover increased staffing, energy, and general operational costs of its new wing which opened one year ago.

After enduring two years of hard lockdown and cutting its opening days from seven to six, MCA says its rising running costs are outstripping flatlining income from state and federal grants.

“The MCA has been unbelievably stoic, but you reach a point, a critical point, where you can no longer ignore the broader financial picture,” said the MCA’s director Suzanne Cotter in a rare interview about the museum’s finances.

“As a result, we are completely rethinking our financial model and one of the things we are looking at is reintroducing ticketed entry.

“This is not the desirable option, but it is the responsible one should our very modest funding stream from government not change.”

MCA chair Lorraine Tarabay said the institution had been chronically underfunded for more than a decade with state government support from Create NSW at $4.2 million, up marginally from $3.5 million in 2012. Federal grants via Creative Australia have fallen by 10 per cent from pre-COVID levels.

Admission fees are usually an option of last resort for any cultural institution for fear of alienating families and to keep their collections accessible to a diverse group of art lovers.

Invariably, fees impact visitor numbers and risk further reduction in commercial income from cafés and shops on which the museums rely.

The MCA is an independent not-for-profit established in 1991 by a bequest to the University of Sydney from artist John Power and the building is the size of The Guggenheim in New York.

Unlike the Art Gallery of NSW – a state cultural institution – the MCA relies on commercial revenue, philanthropic donations, and some state and federal grants to showcase its art.

At the same time, the museum says it is facing increased freight and exhibition installation costs of 30 per cent since COVID and is budgeting for a 40 per cent rise in electricity costs for a new contract in 2024.

“It’s like a ladder in your stocking, it keeps growing until it becomes a hole,” Cotter said. “We are starting to cut the number of exhibitions, and we’ll be doing fewer exhibitions for longer and cutting engagement programs.”

Arts Minister John Graham said a new funding agreement with the MCA this year guaranteed indexed funding growth into the future.

“The MCA is of great importance to NSW and plays a key leadership role in the arts and cultural sector,” he said. “One of my first acts as arts minister was on May 7, 2023, to sign off on a new multi-year funding agreement for the MCA that ensures funding grows year-on-year.”

That contract runs until December 2027 and includes an initial 3 per cent increase for inflation and an ongoing 2 per cent indexed to address increasing costs. Funding for the previous seven years had not been indexed to inflation.

The Louvre in Paris charges $28 entry but is free to visitors aged under 18 and those aged under 26 from the European Union. Recently, The Guggenheim followed the Metropolitan Museum of Art to increase its admission price to $45, amid criticism that art in the US is becoming increasingly the domain of the wealthy.

“Accessibility for us is absolutely fundamental – half of our visitors come from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds – but we need to be financially responsible so that the museum can keep doing everything we do,” Cotter said.

MCA director Suzanne Cotter says entry fees are “not the desirable option but it is the responsible one should our very modest funding stream from government not change”.Credit: Falvio Brancaleone

After teetering on the verge of bankruptcy in its founding years, former director Liz Ann Macgregor scrapped the MCA’s $12 general admission fee in 2000 under a long-running sponsorship deal struck with Telstra. The telco has since shifted its support to MCA’s exhibitions and public programs.

In 2012 Macgregor and philanthropist Simon Mordant raised $53 million to build a new eastern wing, with gallery space and commercial venues from which the MCA could raise income and secure its future.

Some 30 per cent of its floor space is now leased for commercial activity, including the use of its Foundation Hall which was to have been used for some public programs.

Visitation numbers have surpassed 2022, with more than 850,000 people expected to walk through its door this year, despite the shift to six days.

Cotter maintains the MCA’s difficulties are unrelated to the opening of the Art Gallery of NSW’s wing last year and multiple galleries flourish side by side in some of the major cities around the world.

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