Accessibility for museums questioned

Philly has long been an apex for galleries, but access to them differs throughout the city.

It’s difficult to measure exactly how much art exists in the city of Philadelphia.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art alone holds 227,000 works, not including the sprawling temporary exhibits that grace the building each year. The Barnes Collection encompasses more than 3,000 creations – an assemblage that holds dozens of Picassos, scores of Cézannes and 180 Renoirs. The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts holds nearly 2,000 paintings, along with hundreds of sculptures, photographs and prints inside one of the city’s most distinctive historical buildings on Broad and Cherry streets.

Philly’s art collection remains boundless, but the abundance of culture housed in its museums begs a pressing question: how accessible is the city’s art to its residents?

Joanna Moore, a retired associate professor at the Tyler School of Art, now sits on the Education Committee at the PMA, where she said accessibility is a hot-button topic.

“[The] issue of easing access for students to the museum’s resources is always a concern on which we spend a lot of time in our committee meetings,” Moore said.

As far as affordability goes, the leading museums of Philadelphia are by no means free. For adults hoping to climb any farther than up the famous stairs of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, it can cost up to $20; admission at PAFA can reach $15 and the Barnes Foundation at its new location on the parkway can cost up to $25.

All three museums provide student discounts, lowering admission costs to a $10-14 range for those who show valid identification.

Regardless, double-digit prices at the Barnes Foundation, which began in 2005, have raised the eyebrows of many who are aware of the art collection’s history and philanthropic mission. Evelyn Yaari, communications manager for the Friends of the Barnes Foundation, said the museum was inclusive to all races and genders from its initiation in the 1920s.

“It was a uniquely American entity, designed to educate, to be democratic in its essence, to present human developments in art across cultures and time on an equal plane,” Yaari said.

Dr. Albert Barnes, the museum’s namesake, acquired the multi-billion dollar collection and placed it in a 12,000 square foot mansion in a Merion arboretum.

Despite his wealth, Barnes chose to make his collection accessible for an unlikely population. He often rejected requests from the rich to attend the museum, famously barring writer T.S. Eliot from visiting. Instead, Barnes opened the museum’s doors to the poor and working class residents in the Philadelphia area.

When the collection was moved from its Merion mansion to the Parkway, prices immediately jumped from $15 to $18, climbing up to $22 before a year at the new location, Yaari said. The Friends of the Barnes notoriously battled the controversial move, which was seen as a violation of Barnes’s original mission, to make art accessible to the common people.

“The intimate, contemplative and inexpensive art experience has been thrust into a costly setting dependent on revenue driven by privilege, exclusive access and activities to which the art collection is irrelevant,” Yaari said.

Despite prices that may be daunting to potential visitors, many museums in Philadelphia have made efforts to expand accessibility.

“All cultural organizations indeed have many costs but they all want to do whatever they can to attract students of college-age, since they are the future supporters of the institutions,” Moore said.

Twelve museums have already opened doors for students of Philadelphia high schools with the implementation of the STAMP pass in Fall 2013. With the pass, students between the ages of 14 and 19 can access artifacts and works across the city for free at allotted times throughout the week.

When it comes to physical and intellectual accessibility, the PMA is instrumental in helping those who visit the galleries. Street Thoma, manager of accessible programs at the PMA, said the museum has been carrying out some of its programs for decades.

“We’re really very fortunate,” Thoma said, referring to the fact that the museum’s first outreach program is now 43 years old.

In the 1970s, the museum established art education program for visually impaired adults; a course that still runs for 26 weeks each year. With funding from philanthropists, the museum provides participants with visually descriptive and touch tours, as well as art classes geared with interactive tools, ranging from paper mâché to fabric to wood.

The PMA runs similar workshops for those afflicted with Parkinson’s disease and dementia. Recently, the museum created a program for a self-empowerment group of disabled veterans at the Philadelphia Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

“They got really excited about designing the tour, and they said they wanted to bring some of their friends,” Thoma said. “It’s feeding right into the self-empowerment things they’re working on in the [Veterans Affairs].”

The Barnes, PMA and 15 other Philly museums have joined Art-Reach in a collaborative program that presents opportunities for residents with ACCESS cards. ACCESS cards usually go to lower income residents who also hold eligibility for federal aid regarding the obtainment of food, medical benefits, or money from the government.

With the presentation of an ACCESS card and photo identification, adults can get into a museum that would usually cost $25 for a mere $2.

“That’s a great program – it reaches a lot of people,” Thoma said.

ACCESS is one of several programs that Art-Reach oversees. The citywide organization states that its goal is to connect “underserved audiences with cultural experiences”– a mission not unlike that of Barnes.

Angela Gervasi can be reached at

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