Art should be for everyone, regardless of their ability to pay.
It will now be at the Allentown Museum of Art.
Admission to the museum will be free starting August 27, funded by one of three recent gifts from the Century Fund.
“I think financial access is always a barrier and a limitation for families,” said Max Weintraub, president and CEO of the Weintraub Museum. “We wanted to expand access to all of our educational programs. It’s really about institutional changes that we’re trying to put in place so that we can continue to serve in the 21st century.”
The Century Fund was established in December 1985 by Morning Call publisher Donald P. Miller, a year after he sold the former Call-Chronicle newspapers to the Times-Mirror Co. When he died in 1996, most of his estate was transferred to The Century Fund, with a mandate that the money be distributed over 25 years. As a result, the fund was closed in 2021 and one of the three last gifts went to the museum.
Throughout its history, the Century Fund has directed more than $54 million to 139 nonprofit organizations in the Lehigh Valley. The fund’s work included everything from small grants, such as for playground equipment in Albertis, to major support for what is now the Allentown Arts District.
Admission to the museum will be free in perpetuity by drawing interest from the Allentown Art Museum’s $2 million endowment fund, which will be administered by the Lehigh Valley Community Foundation.
It’s unclear how unique the free admission will be in Allentown. Rusty Baker, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of Museums, said his organization does not track admission prices, but Pennsylvania museums offer programs that reduce the price of admission or have special days or events when admission is free.
“The Philadelphia Museum of Art, for example, is open for free or pay-what-you-want several times each week,” Baker said. “Some museums also have free admission programs for people who are enrolled in government programs to assist families below a certain income level.”
The Allentown Museum of Art offers visitors the opportunity to visit for free every Sunday, as well as the third Thursday of the month.
“The museum has long sought to be a free institution,” Weintraub said.
Weintraub said the museum saw the most visitors on Sundays.
Of course, getting rid of paid admission isn’t the only part of making sure museums are fair.
“Museums obviously want more visitors and people from different communities to come through their doors,” Baker said. “And there is just as much work, as in our other public institutions such as schools, to provide a welcoming and safe environment for learning.” This work does not end at the front desk.”
Led by Weintraub, the museum has a renewed commitment to telling the story of American art in an inclusive and relevant way, featuring more contemporary art and works by women, black, Hispanic, Latino, and Indigenous artists.
On the day the museum becomes free, it will also be an opportunity to see the first major “refit” of the museum’s permanent collection in more than a decade. What visitors will see is a much more open space that will allow the museum greater flexibility to display never-before-seen items from the museum’s extensive collection.
“One of the challenges of being in an older building is that some of the spaces can feel smaller,” Weintraub said. “We opened it up and reconfigured the gallery walls, creating deeper sight lines into the space. This has a big impact on the visitor experience.”
Like most museums, only a small portion of Allentown’s extensive permanent collection is on display here. An important segment of this collection, featuring a large representation of women and artists of color, are the museum’s textiles and works on paper. These pieces can only be seen for a few months as their exposure to light must be limited.
A good example is the museum’s collection of Navajo rugs. Now, with the new space, the museum can rotate pieces like the carpets so there’s always something new to see while preserving the pieces.
On August 27 and beyond, visitors will simply come to the museum, receive a metal visitor button and walk around.
“Our core mission is to continually strive to be an inclusive place,” Weintraub said. “In the end, becoming free is really what it’s all about.”