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How do Charleston cultural institutions set their admission prices?

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Charleston Stage's Marketing and Development Director Denis Chirles says the theatre's ticket prices are set by researching both in-town attractions as well as those of like-budgeted theatres in other cities around the nation
  • Charleston Stage's Marketing and Development Director Denis Chirles says the theatre's ticket prices are set by researching both in-town attractions as well as those of like-budgeted theatres in other cities around the nation

Let's say you're picking up a bottle of wine for dinner. You're not a sommelier — anything over 10 bucks, you likely won't taste where your money went. You see two bottles of California Pinot, one's nine, one's seven. Got to go with the nine-dollar one, right? Still under budget, and it has to be better, right?

That's essentially what's happened at the Gibbes Museum of Art this year. The price of admission went from $7 to $9, and attendance has gone up with it, by a solid 20 percent.

The Gibbes' new director, Todd Smith, doesn't personally buy the "wine theory" — that a higher asking price results in higher esteem. He attributes the jump in part to staying open until 8 p.m. during Spoleto (attendance was up 60 percent compared to the 2005 festival fortnight), and the recent Hopper in Charleston exhibit.

"It's a show the Gibbes and only the Gibbes could and should do," Smith says. "It's that carving out of the niche which is where our future really lies."

Still, unless Joe Carriage-Rider actually thought he was going to see "Nighthawks," it's unlikely Hopper's subtle paintings of buildings were a sexy draw — even with the smoldering social commentary in "Charleston Slum."

The Gibbes is now the most expensive museum in the South, save for Telfair in Savannah (also $9) and the High Museum in Atlanta ($15 and a whole different ballgame). The Orlando Museum of Art is $8, and the Mint Museums in Charlotte are each $6.

Yet the raise has raised hardly a peep here, other than a withering column by Tom Starland in his "Carolina Arts" newsletter.

"Is this admission increase justified?" Starland writes. "Well, maybe it will be when the Gibbes starts offering BLOCKBUSTER exhibitions." (Emphasis his.)

Gibbes communications director Jesse Hendrix said it had been "a very long time" since the museum had raised its prices, and the increase was based "on a study of other attractions in Charleston. We just found that our prices were so much below."

A single adult admission to the South Carolina Aquarium is $15, Drayton Hall costs $12, and entry to Middleton Place will set you back no less than $30. The period-costumed pirate outside the Old Exchange Building and Provost Dungeon downtown is pulling in tourists for only $6.

With 60 percent of its visitors from out of town, it's hard not to argue that the Gibbes is a tourist attraction. But is a museum meant to be more than just a place for visitors to cool off?

Who knows. But another venerable, somewhat larger art institution — possibly the biggest tourist attraction in its city, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan — raised its "suggested donation" (more about that later) from $15 to $20 at the beginning of August. New Yorkers have moaned about it as much as they have Alex Rodriguez's glove work at third base.

Okay, not quite as much. But it has been noticed and hotly debated. Some have claimed that museums have a civic duty to remain accessible. Others have pointed out that if people will pay $75 to see Bon Jovi, certainly Van Gogh is worth $20.

Because of an agreement involving its use of public land in Central Park, The Met technically can require only a donation for admission. Apparently the signs that say "Pay what you will but you must pay something" have been stealthily removed in recent years, but if you have the nerve, you can honestly throw down a Lincoln — a copper one — and waltz right in.

You can also get into other great museums for less, on certain days. The Art Institute of Chicago, for instance, where Hopper's "Nighthawks" lives, is free on Thursday and Friday nights in the summer.

The Gibbes lags behind other Southern museums in offering free days. Charlotte's Mint Museums are free for certain hours on Tuesdays. At the High in Atlanta, the first 600 Fulton County residents get in for free on the first Saturday of each month. (No Picasso bobblehead giveaways, though, and Atlantans in DeKalb County are out of luck.)

To its credit, the Gibbes has had low-price days in the past, and will offer its first totally free community day on Sun. Sept. 24 from 1-4 p.m., a quarterly event sponsored by SunTrust Bank.

Throw the Groundlings a Bone

Somewhat like the Met, Charleston Stage Company offers "Pay What You Will" deals on certain nights. Unlike New York, local theatre companies are less tourist attractions than local museums are. For them, every day is a kind of community day.

Denis Chirles of Charleston Stage says the company's ticket prices are set by researching other in-town attractions like Charleston Ballet Theatre, the Charleston Symphony Orchestra, and the Aquarium.

"Then we look at other theatres in similar-sized cities with similar-sized budgets," Chirles says, "and look at what they're charging, pull that together, and come up with a decision."

Comparisons for Charleston Stage include Actors Express in Atlanta, American Theatre Company in Chicago, City Theatre in Pittsburgh, and the Hangar Theatre in Ithaca, New York.

After all the research and computation, Charleston Stage's ticket prices are set at $25 for plays, $35 for musicals. However, if you can wade through a matrix of flex packages and Young Professional memberships, there are savings to be had.

Especially if you're up for a midweek show. Pay What You Will nights are the first Wednesday of a show's run. Chirles says the take averages out to $12-$13 a ticket, but with a house of 200-300, the company does better than it would on a typical Wednesday night asking full price.

Charleston Stage has about 45,000 audience members annually, with ticket sales comprising about 40 percent of the $1.2 million budget.

In contrast, the Gibbes' admission fees comprise only 6 percent of its annual budget of $2.1 million. So that can be taken at least two ways. One is to ask, "Why bother raising it, then?" The other is to consider that the museum actually spends $84 on each person who walks through the door.

The Gibbes' view is that, as with most arts organizations, every little bit counts.

And those who think the extra two dollars means they'll soon queue up on Meeting Street to get a look at Starry Night in a "BLOCKBUSTER" show, don't hold your breath.

"For museums of our size, it's becoming less and less financially beneficial to do exhibitions that are considered blockbusters," says Gibbes director Smith. "There's rarely a return on the investment." He adds that future exhibitions will be "based on our historical strengths. The Gibbes was founded and continues to thrive with a strong sense of who it is."

And evidently a strong sense of self-worth.

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