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David and Art - Free Art (Access)

Would free admission to museums entice you to go more often? One philanthropist is hoping so.

You may have heard the story on NPR a couple of weeks ago about Alice Walton of the Walton family giving $40 million in grants to expand community outreach programs at 64 art museums around the country. The grants range in size from $56,000 to over than $2 million and cover a three-year period. Museums are to use them to attract new audiences, noted NPR’s Elizabeth Blair, and they have considerable leeway in how they do that. It could mean extending free hours or even offering free meals.

Walton calls it the “Access for All Initiative” and it’s managed by a Walton Family Foundation called Art Bridges. It’s been around since 2017 and its mission involves supporting institutions across the country, primarily with an eye toward deepening their connection with local audiences and their communities.

Here in Texas, since 2017 the Foundation has worked with the Tyler Museum of Art; the Old Jail Art Center in Albany; the San Angelo Museum of Art; the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin; the Amarillo Museum of Art; El Paso Museum of Art; the El Paso Museum of History; and the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio.

At the very least, this grant money will make possible a designated once-a-month “Access for All Day,” with free admission to everybody. Museums that already offer free admission can use the money for other programs, as long as they’re designed to expand public outreach. This year, museums from San Diego to Smith College have received Access for All grants. Around here, the Amon Carter Museum of Art in Fort Worth, the Art Museum of South Texas in Corpus Christi, the Dallas Museum of Art, and the San Antonio Museum of Art all received some level of grant funding in this program.

This all is a direct outgrowth of Alice Walton’s interest in American art, an interest that also led to the opening of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas over a decade ago. “For years I’ve been thinking about what we could do as a family that could really make a difference in this part of the world,” she said shortly before the museum opened. A quality public art museum was a civic resource the region sorely lacked, and her own world-class collection became the core of the museum when it opened its doors on November 11, 2011. When it did it was the first major museum dedicated solely to American art to open in 50 years. And since opening day, admission has been free.