When I went to the MFA Boston Hanukkah party this past Wednesday, I wasn’t expecting to walk away with a free membership.
I have an MFA membership now. Go figure.
I didn’t complete a scavenger hunt for the privilege or win any sort of raffle. As it turns out, the MFA is launching a free first-year membership program in celebration of the 150th anniversary of its founding. The only way to enroll is onsite at 14 cultural and Late Nite events held throughout 2020, so it looks like I got lucky with an early opportunity.
Just by the numbers, giving out free memberships is a huge move – even for only one year. An entry-level Supporter membership can cost $75-$114 for one person. Multiply that by one or two hundred visitors (conservatively) signing up at each of the 14 events and you have a six-figure sum that the MFA could theoretically make otherwise. Why is the MFA undertaking such a colossal initiative when even the The Met’s 150-year celebration will comprise mostly a few events and exhibitions?
I wonder if the free first-year memberships were thought of before or after the school group incident in May. In short, a class of seventh graders reported being targeted by racist speech from MFA staff and visitors and racial profiling by security. The MFA was criticized for its handling of the report and communication in the days afterwards; even Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey opened an investigation into the event. In (ongoing) response, the MFA began a “Toward a More Inclusive MFA” initiative involving staff and volunteer trainings, community roundtables, new executive positions dedicated to inclusion and working with the community, and other endeavors.
Reading over the 150th anniversary press release again, it looks like the bulk of the related celebrations will champion diversity and inclusion. The release mentions “community” 16 times, “diversity” 4 times, and “inclusion” 3 times. The focus on community does relate to the strategic plan released in 2017, but I suspect the MFA is also still trying to make up for the events in May and move forward.
The MFA has been working hard to position itself as a place of belonging for the community – something many museums grapple with. We know free admission doesn’t bring in new or more diverse members on its own; however, the slate of cultural events with free admission planned for 2020, including celebrations for Nowruz, Juneteenth, and an ASL night, may attract such a crowd. By providing free first-year memberships at these events, the MFA incentivizes return visits by audience segments it desperately seeks to connect with. In theory, this will give the Museum more opportunities to build and rebuild relationships with the community.
I haven’t heard of other museums offering free memberships like this, so I’m curious to see how the next year unfolds for the MFA. What do you think of the plan – will you be going to get your free membership?