Chicago Children's Museum First in City to Link Admission and Food Stamps

Kids playing at the Chicago Children's Museum (Courtesy of the Chicago Children's Museum)Kids playing at the Chicago Children's Museum (Courtesy of the Chicago Children's Museum)

The Chicago Children’s Museum will be the first in both the city and the state of Illinois to offer reduced admission costs for families on food stamps – a move that’s part of a larger, national initiative to increase museum access for impoverished individuals.

That decision could ultimately mean a revenue gamble for the museum, which currently charges $14 for kids and adults, with free admission for children under age 1. Under the new program, anyone who shows a card indicating they receive state-funded food assistance (in Illinois, the Link Card) will pay only $3. The museum will offer up to six discounted entries per card.

WHEN FREE DAYS AREN’T ENOUGH

Located on Navy Pier since 1995, the Chicago Children’s Museum already offers free admission on Thursday evenings and every first Sunday of the month. It also partners with community organizations to provide free family passes and memberships. But Children’s Museum’s Saleem Penny, associate vice president of community and educational partnerships, said it wasn’t enough – the limited free days were restrictive for some working families’ schedules and the museum found that other families weren’t consistently taking advantage of the free memberships.

Though the Children’s Museum will keep its current free days, the addition of the reduced cost admission – which rolls out Dec. 1 – was an important step towards increased access, according to Penny.

“We felt that we were a really good fit. If we can start having children visit museums early, it’s gonna set them up for a lifelong pattern of appreciating and using museums within their community,” he said.

Offering free and reduced cost days is nothing new – many of Chicago’s big museums already extend those days to Illinois residents. The Field, Museum of Science and Industry and Shedd Aquarium offer various free day benefits for active military personnel, teachers and, in some cases, Chicago police officers and firefighters. Children ages 14 and under are always free at the Art Institute, which recently raised its admission rates for the second time in less than three years.

“One of our biggest priorities is that everyone should be able to attend our museum. We never deny anyone."

–Michelle Chartrand, Omaha Children's Museum


But among all of Chicago’s museum giants, it isn’t random that the Children’s Museum, which sees some 400,000 annual attendees, made this move first. The program linking food stamps and reduced cost admission – Museums for All – was first concocted by the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the Association of Children’s Museums with the intent to try it out among children’s museums as a way to gauge feasibility.

So far, the only other Illinois museum that's expressed interest in the program has been the western suburb's Morton Arboretum, which has yet to officially commit, according to arboretum spokeswoman Kelley Regan.   

Since the program’s official launch in 2014, over 44 museums nationwide have signed on, with each offering various benefits. Basic guidelines require participating museums to offer discounts ranging from free to $3 per ticket, with up to four individuals per card allowed to take advantage of the reduced rate.

FUNDING CHALLENGES

The Children’s Museum plans to launch its reduced cost program without state or private funding in place, Penny said. But that hasn’t necessarily been the case for other participating museums. At the Amazement Square children’s museum in Lynchburg, Virginia, a $25,000 grant from Walmart ultimately gave the museum the funds it needed to offer $3 reduced price tickets.

“We really needed a funding source to kick it up a notch for us. Being a nonprofit, funds were tight and we were looking for a way to take it to the next level,” said Michelle Bergman, the museum’s associate director of development. “For us, it’s the ability to reach further out into our community and reach people who did not think they were able to come before. To bring that experience to families is truly rewarding.”

Of the 90,000 who come through Amazement Square’s doors annually, some 8,000 currently use the Museums for All discount, Bergman said. The Walmart grant covers costs for half of those attendees.  

Nebraska’s Omaha Children’s Museum – which serves as a model for Museums for All – relies on targeted fundraising to support greatly reduced yearly membership costs, based on income tax bracket or whether or not a child is enrolled in the state’s free lunch program.

“We’ve always said, one of our biggest priorities is that everyone should be able to attend our museum,” said Michelle Chartrand, the museum’s director of advancement. “We never deny anyone.”

A SHIFT IN RESOURCES

Since 2002, the Chicago Children’s Museum has worked with various community organizations around the city to offer steeply discounted memberships as well as free day passes to some 1,000 families. The museum keeps track of how often those passes and memberships get used, and Penny said that partnership just wasn’t equating to increased attendance.  

As a result, the museum plans to cut that program, in essence invalidating those discounted memberships. For an organization like the Bridgeport Child Development Center, the loss of those memberships may not make much difference – according to the group’s director Marybeth Mlikotic, the majority of enrolled kids are between 3 and 5 years old, an age group which doesn’t participate in field trips outside the childcare center.

(Map shows locations of community organizations which will lose discounted Children's Museum memberships)


The Carol Robertson Center for Learning is another childcare center involved in that program – this one located on the Near West Side, an area where the Children’s Museum saw an especial lack of attendance in recent years, according to Penny.

But Carol Robertson spokeswoman Wendy Mitchell Gill said having the free passes allowed the center to organize group outings in which families felt a sense of both comfort and community. She worries whether those same families will have the initiative to attend on their own.

“I’m saddened to hear that,” Mitchell Gill said of the shift. “Some of our families are more isolated and don’t get out – this will probably reduce their visits to the museum.”

But Penny insists that the Children’s Museum has done its homework in this regard. Prior to committing to the reduced price admission, the Children’s Museum held a series of focus groups with community members who receive food assistance.

“We wanted to make sure we were being respectful, being aware of barriers and stigmas,” Penny said. “And we tried to hear firsthand what kind of questions would feel intrusive, what types of identification would feel inappropriate so we could design the program being sensitive and aware and truly living up to the title of improving access to museums for all.” 

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