As important as today’s announcement is that the Contemporary Arts Center will start free admission on Feb. 13 for at least three years, the story of how the museum is underwriting it is also impressive.
Needing $250,000, mostly to make up for lost revenue and a possible membership dip, the CAC didn’t turn to a traditional source like a single wealthy benefactor.
At first, the museum got the local Johnson Foundation to offer a $75,000 grant — $25,000 for each of three years. More was beyond the foundation’s reach, so that left a huge gap.
Amy Goodwin, Johnson Foundation president and CEO, and Raphaela Platow, the CAC’s director, started brainstorming.
“Amy and I came up with the idea of cultivating a younger group of people who really care about the CAC, and they would be the people to make free admission happen,” Platow says.
The result is that Goodwin, with Platow’s assistance, created The 50, a group of 50 patrons age 25-49 who each have agreed to give $1,000 per year for three years toward free admission. Both women are members of The 50, as are their husbands. (As of this story’s deadline, there were 45 members and several invitations outstanding.)
“For 90 percent of the people involved, this is probably the single biggest gift that any of them have given to any organization,” Goodwin says. “It wasn’t taken lightly. They believe in making Cincinnati a better, more vibrant, welcoming place.”
While this first commitment is just for three years, the intent is to offer free admission afterward.
The CAC, like so many art museums, has been looking for ways to bring in a new generation of future benefactors. But a “young collectors” group wouldn’t work because the CAC doesn’t have a permanent collection. “And we were shying away from the notion of a YP (Young Professionals) group,” Platow says. “We had discussed it before with these people and it didn’t resonate. This was not a group interested in the typical YP things, coming together for social events. These were people who care about the city, contemporary art and contemporary culture.”
There were two main reasons propelling the CAC’s desire to try free admission. (It currently costs non-member adults $7.50 to see the exhibition galleries.)
The Cincinnati Art Museum has had free admission for a number of years. But also, last year’s renovation of the CAC’s previously relatively stark first-floor lobby has turned it into a downtown gathering spot.
The new Collective CAC café — operated by Collective Espresso — is open 7 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Friday and 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday and is especially popular. It’s given the place a new energy and increased traffic, especially during lunchtime. Even before it opened, the CAC noticed an attendance spike when it temporarily made admission free because of all the construction hubbub.
“The people who are coming in to visit Collective CAC for coffee or lunch may have 20 minutes free and think about seeing the art,” Goodwin says. “But they say, ‘If I’m going to pay money to go in, I should come back when I have more time.’ But then they don’t make it back.
“This change will allow downtown office workers and folks coming in (to the café) to pop upstairs and see what they want,” Goodwin continues. “How great it would be, if they work at P&G or Fifth Third Bank, to spend 20 minutes walking through an exhibition and then walk back to their desk and feel inspired or refreshed in some way.”
In order for the CAC to keep members — it has 1,250 of them — once free admission starts, it is tweaking benefits. And it’s come up with a doozy of a perk.
The private valet service that operates outside the CAC’s front door will charge members a discount rate of $6 for the day. That’s quite a deal considering the valet service operates 7:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 7:30 a.m.-2 a.m. Friday, 9 a.m.-2 a.m. Saturday and 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday.
“During the day, that’s amazing because most parking garages adjacent to the CAC are at least $12,” Platow says. “I just hope they will all love contemporary art and not just sign up for the perk of parking. If we find one person parks every day but never visits the galleries, we’ll have a very serious conversation with that person. That’s really not the idea.”
CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: [email protected]