MFA Should Go All the Way and Let EBT Card Holders in for Free
A few days ago I got a press release from the Museum of Fine Arts announcing a new program to give discounted admission to Massachusetts residents who show Electronic Benefits Transfer cards at the museum's ticketing desks. That is to say, the roughly 900,000 people who manage to qualify for the remnant of the federal food stamps program (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) in the Commonwealth will get a break at our region's flagship art museum. But I was dismayed to find that the MFA is not letting EBT card holders in for free. They're charging them $3 a ticket for up to four tickets per card holder. And that amount must be paid in cash. People can't charge their EBT card to get in. Nor can they use credit cards, debit cards or checks like other attendees.
Now, don't get me wrong, this is certainly a better deal than having to pay the otherwise high sticker price to enter the MFA. And since children 17 and under get in for free most of the time anyway, people don't have to worry about paying for their kids' admissions.
But it really makes no sense to charge EBT card holders anything at all.
Because, from a cost-benefit perspective, the vast majority of EBT card holders would only rarely go to the MFA under normal circumstances. So the MFA is hardly losing much potential revenue by letting some of them in for free.
In addition, the museum already lets in tens of thousands of its 1.2 million annual attendees for free.
Aside from letting kids in free, the MFA has free general admission every Wednesday after 4 p.m. Students at Boston art schools get in for free with valid ID. Journalists (including me) also get in for free. And there are numerous other deals and programs out there that result in free admission one way or the other - including public library passes, the Blue Star program for active duty military families, reciprocal museum memberships, three free open house days annually, and the like.
I seriously doubt those numbers are going to jump significantly by granting EBT card holders free admission. Especially because the MFA doesn't exactly do heavy marketing in working class communities around the Bay State. It does heavy marketing to its core constituencies: the college educated, the upper middle class, and the wealthy. All of whom make up a major percentage of the museum’s active donors.
And while this new access program is co-sponsored by the Mass. Department of Transitional Assistance (which is the state's Orwellian name for the remnant of its welfare program), they can't afford significant advertising campaigns. They'll be doing the kind of direct outreach that one would expect of a woefully underfunded government agency in this age of austerity.
For more background on this issue, I dropped an email on this issue to Matthew Kitsos, director of communications for the DTA, and he replied "The Department will be informing clients of this and similar programs offered by educational and cultural institutions across the Commonwealth in many ways. Right now we have literature in our Boston Offices informing clients of the discount, informing staff so they can share with clients directly, and are working with our community partners to spread the news."
That sounds like a reasonable effort given the circumstances, but the MFA initiative is just one program among many that DTA staff and allied non-profits have to tell their clients about during usually brief meetings with families in difficult circumstances who are more interested in how they're going to pay their rent and feed their kids than they are about visits to museums.
So it's highly unlikely that the MFA will see a surge in free attendees by dropping the $3 charge on EBT card holders.
Which I certainly think is a pity, but there it is.
For these reasons, and other structural reasons outside the scope of this editorial, it is the position of this publication that the Museum of Fine Arts should allow EBT card holders free admission across the board. That would ensure that more families in need will be likely to take the opportunity to avail themselves of exposure to the museum's fine collection of artistic and cultural treasures. And will perhaps inspire some future art superstars (both adults and children) to take their first steps towards a career in the arts who would otherwise have considered it beyond their reach.
Jason Pramas is Editor/Publisher of Open Media Boston. He is also a working artist, and holds an MFA in Visual Arts from the Art Institute of Boston at Lesley University.