Why the Whitney Museum went from ‘pay-what-you-wish’ to ‘free’ on Friday nights

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By Dan Sears

The Whitney Museum will launch its new program of free admission from 5 to 10 p.m. on Friday nights this week, along with a new program offering free admission on the second Sunday of each month.

The museum previously had a “pay-what-you-wish” admission policy after 7 p.m. on Fridays, which director Scott Rothkopf said didn’t always work as intended.

According to Rothkopf, the artist and Whitney board member Julie Mehretu kept telling him that “pay-what-you-wish’ and “free” were not the same thing.

“‘Pay-what-you-wish’ could be confusing to people,” Rothkopf said. “Everyone knows what ‘free’ means.”

Making the “free” component crystal clear was part of the museum’s effort to attract a new audience, Rothkopf said, adding that the audience in the “pay-what-you-wish” hours has been younger, less affluent and more diverse.

He acknowledged that pricing isn’t the only lever that shifts audience demographics.

“You also need programming related to the kinds of audiences you hope to attract,” Rothkopf said. “So on Sundays, when we’re thinking about having more families come, are we doing more art-making? Are we doing more tours in Spanish?”

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Rothkopf, who joined the museum as a curator in 2009 and became director in November 2023, said the change was an important way to announce a new vision for what the Whitney cares about and who they want to include.

The expanded free admission is made possible by three-year gifts from several Whitney trustees, as well as the Art Bridges Foundation, a nonprofit founded by Walmart heir Alice Walton, which aims to expand access to American art.

Three years is long enough for the change to sink in to the public consciousness, Rothkopf said and for the museum to gather meaningful insights on the effects of the change, such as how much the loss of ticket revenue may be offset by additional memberships or other benefits.

When the three-year runway runs out, will the free admission policy change?

“Anything in the museum business could potentially change in the absence of funding,” Rothkopf said. “But if this is working and it achieves even a little bit of what we think and hope it will, we’ll find some way to make it work going forward.”

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