SAM's secret revealed: You don't have to pay to get in

A Crosscut consumer report: At the downtown Seattle Art Museum, you can pay the suggested admission price – or whatever you want, including nothing.
Crosscut archive image.

The new downtown Seattle Art Museum. (Richard Barnes)

A Crosscut consumer report: At the downtown Seattle Art Museum, you can pay the suggested admission price – or whatever you want, including nothing.

Of all the words said about the new downtown Seattle Art Museum, hardly anyone disclosed a little-known fact about the price of admission: You don't have to pay. No, this isn't a play by Dario Fo. It's SAM's idea. That $13 admission fee for adults? You can forget it. Look closely at what SAM says: $13 is a "suggested admission." In fact, you could pay nothing, or a penny. Or more, if you're feeling the Wright stuff. "It's a suggested admission charge, but it's still encouraged," says SAM spokeswoman Cara Egan. I got to thinking about SAM's admission policy during its recent 35-hour party celebrating the museum's opening. Much of the coverage talked about how admission during the party was free, prompting some to wonder why it couldn't be free all of the time. Here's Mark Fefer in Seattle Weekly: As with the sculpture park, you saw every variety of Seattle citizen at the opening, a sight that made me wish that, with all the money seemingly sloshing around SAM, would permanently free admission not have been a possible goal? SAM has made some concessions in that direction. The first Thursday of every month is free. The first Friday of every month is free for seniors. The second Friday night of every month is free for teens. If that's a little confusing, SAM also prices its museums differently. Suggested admission for the Seattle Asian Art Museum on Capitol Hill is $5 for adults, $3 for seniors and students, and free for children 12 and under. Downtown, the suggested price for seniors is $10, for students $7, and for children under 12 no charge. (SAM members are free.) The new waterfront sculpture park is free for everybody because Mary and Jon Shirley gave money for that purpose. SAM's pay-what-you want policy dates back to the 1970s, said Egan. The policy start started at the museum on Capitol Hill was extended with the opening of the original downtown museum in 1991. Egan hastens to add that the museum hopes people pay full price because ticket sales account for about 20 percent of museum revenue. A year ago, The New York Times did a piece on the eccentricities and meaning in admissions polices. Perhaps the oddest policy comes from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Anybody named Isabella gets in free. A museum's admission policy is charged with meaning. It encodes the institution's core values – its sense of itself, its mission and its public – and broadcasts them to that public. It's like a thumbprint, a tiny yet accurate key to a whole identity. It is also, periodically, a hot-button issue. In Fort Worth, two museums are taking different approaches to admissions policies. I like SAM's policy. I'd just like it disclosed better. It's a great thing that our museum wants to be affordable. And it advances SAM's larger goal of opening itself to the city it serves. Of course, if you want to pay more than the suggested amount, that's okay too. It's your choice. Call it performance art.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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O. Casey Corr

O. Casey Corr is a Seattle native, author and marketing communications consultant.