It's one of the greatest things about visiting Washington, DC. Visitors from all over are amazed at the cultural wonderland that is the Smithsonian, and even more so that it's free! It says something great about our country that we give as a free gift to our own citizens and visitors this peerless experience.
However, for those of you watching national news, you might have heard that the Federal budget deficit has been getting a little press recently. A bipartisan committee has recently come out with a series of recommendations to close it, a cause I can get behind in theory. However, in the report is a little blurb that's getting a lot of attention in Washington this morning: a proposal to save $225 million a year by charging admission to the Smithsonian.
Now, for me this would be a grade A disaster. Not so much the cost, but the incredible logistical hassle of having to deal with tickets for my school groups. It would also change the very nature of the experience; after all the Museum has been free since its opening in 1846 and that's part of the treasured experience visitors from across the nation, and even the world, cherish.
But, we face tough times, and maybe this is needed. $225 million a year isn't chump change, and tough and unpopular decisions will have to be made. But is it really $225 million? From the operative portion of the report(pdf):
30. Reduce funding to the Smithsonian and the National Park Service and allow the programs 2015 to offset the reduction through fees. The Smithsonian’s budget is projected to approach $1 billion in 2015. This option reduces net spending by charging a fee to Smithsonian visitors. There were about 30 million visitors to the 19 Smithsonian museums and the National Zoo in 2009. Under this option, $225 million, or less than a quarter of the Smithsonian’s 2015 budget, would be paid for by charging visitors fees. Notable private museums across the United States tend to charge anywhere from $10 to $20 per visitor, with lower rates for children and seniors. World class zoos in the United States charge more, or closer to $20 or $25 per visitor. Raising $225 million in fees would average about $7.50 per visitor.
Even on its face, this logic is specious. According to their simplistic thinking: 30 million people visiting the Smithsonian each paying $7.50 would net $225 million.
30 million visitors is the sum total of all the Smithsonian's visitors for 2009. But there is some nuance that whatever intern compiled this section of the report left out. Let's examine this:
- The Cooper-Hewitt, National Desing Museum in New York already charges $15 for admission. That's 172,000 people already paying to get in ($1.29 million off the table)
- The Smithsonian did not get 30 million visitors last year. They had 30 million visits. As they put it : "Smithsonian guards use hand clickers to count everyone entering the museums through public entrances during the hours the museums are open. The counts sometimes include staff, as well as visitors who leave the museum and return. A person visiting three Smithsonian museums on any given day will be counted three times. For these reasons, we always refer to the numbers below as "visits" rather than "visitors"."
- I personally was several dozen of these visits. Going back in to get kids, ducking out to get lunch, a quick visit to see a friend; they are all counted separately. And not just my fellow tour guides. People leave jackets behind. They duck in to use the bathroom. They go in to grab a meal. There's any number of reasons that 30 million is ridiculously high.
- Do you really think charging won't cut down on the visits? Do you think 668,000 people will shell out $7.50 to go to the Hirshhorn? Or 349,000 will still go to the Postal Museum? Or a whopping 1.9 million will still go to the Castle?
- Keep in mind, this is $7.50 for each visit to EACH Museum. So, you spend an afternoon on the Mall, go to the big three (Natural History, American History, and Air and Space) and you are out $22.50. If I was bringing a family, we'd be seeing less Museums and spending more time at the ones we went to.
- I bring literally thousands of school kids to the Museums each year. A rough calculation for this year shows that I was up in front of the bus talking to about 1,200 kids, parents, teachers, and chaperones. Just about all of them made one, if not three or four, of those visits. If it's not free, that number will drop precipitously. It's not the cost, it's the hassle. Many times, we visit a Smithsonian because we have time to kill. I won't be able to do that if tickets are required.
- Many of these visits are locals. We head over there to see a new exhibit or take some out of town visitors. It's no big deal, and an easy way to kill an hour or two. Contrast that with the Newseum, which is a great museum, and I rarely visit.
- These are 2009 numbers. We had a huge spike in visits in, oh, January 2009. 2008 had 25 million people. Through September, 2010 has a respectable 24.4 million, so we may very well match or exceed 2009. But even without charging, visits ebb and flow due to any number of variables.
So maybe we could eke out $100 to $150 million dollars, right (if the Federal government can do back of the envelope calculations, so can I)? Not an insignificant number, right?
Well, we haven't even addressed the compliance cost. We'll have to restrict access to the building to make sure no one gets in without a ticket. Hire people to sell tickets, check for them, and so on. Not going to be a huge number, but it won't be free either.
And finally, before we start defraying the Federal government's responsibility for operating costs, we have a gigantic maintenance budget that's been ignored. As this very report notes:
This option also requires that both the Smithsonian and National Park Service work through outstanding maintenance projects until the backlogs are below $1 billion for each agency before funding new projects. In 2007, GAO found that the Smithsonian had a maintenance backlog of $2.5 billion that was causing damage to historic items.
So, let me get this straight. You're going to cut the operating budget, institute a visitors fee to make up those costs, and then require the Institution to pay down at least $1.5 billion in a maintenance budget? How? With what money? I think it's grossly irresponsible to have allowed the backlog to get this big, but if we have to hold our noses and pay up, then it should go to reducing this backlog, not backstopping the Federal government's clear responsibility to pay for an Institution that is held in trust for the American people.
The good news, I suspect, is that this is fiscal theater, and we have very little to fear. But there's no excuse for such shoddy estimates. You work is important, Fiscal Commission, put some thought into it. Because I'd be embarrassed to put my name to such weak analysis.
Since I posted this, the Smithsonian has issued a news release that confirms much of what I said, although considerably more diplomatically.
Of particular note, however, is a discussion of the so-called "maintenance backlog". It appears that the Fiscal Commission misread the GAO report. From the Smithsonian's press release:
Another part of the recommendation asserts that the Smithsonian has a “maintenance backlog of $2.5 billion.” This is incorrect. The 2007 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report that is cited in the recommendation discussed the Smithsonian’s 10-year, $250 million per year plan for facilities revitalization and maintenance. That level of funding was based on industry standards for an organization with aging buildings: $150 million per year on facilities revitalization and $100 million per year on facilities maintenance. Although the fiscal year 2010 budget gave the Smithsonian somewhat less than that amount, it has made substantial progress in renovating and repairing its physical infrastructure. There is no $2.5 billion backlog of maintenance work at the Smithsonian.