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Museums for All: The duality between low-income and higher learning in art


Dana Friis Hanson


In Maslow’s hierarchy, a theory in psychology exploring needs imperative to the development of the human psyche, and in what order each ranks in importance, individuals are unable to reach self-actualization without the sustainability of basic needs like food and shelter. However, in more recent times, we are beginning to understand the power of allowing needs like safety and love and belonging to coincide and exist amongst one another, to create a more accurate depiction of how people’s lives unfold, how they see the world they live in, and giving them the space to express this on their own terms.

The Museums for All initiative, offered through the Institute of Museum and Library Services, has been adopted by the Grand Rapids Art Museum (GRAM) as of August 13. Its mission is to bridge the gap between individuals who want, just as much as their counterparts who have resources more readily available to them, to participate in the universal experiences that art has to offer. Museums for All enables the Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card to be used as a valid form of free entry into the GRAM, much like its neighboring organizations, the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum and the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts (UICA), who began participating in 2017.

EBT cardholders typically use this form of payment as a way to purchase food, a very basic human need. Likewise, the Museums for All program equates art with this same significance, allowing cardholders to use it as a free entry pass. 

The core motive for GRAM moving forward with this program is to reach more people.

“We’re always evaluating how we are working with our community and our audiences, and a distinct goal of ours has always been, and always will be, to engage the widest population possible with what we have to offer,” says GRAM Director of Learning and Creativity Christopher Bruce. “And as part of that, we are always looking at all ways we can lower or remove barriers from access for our community.”

Day by day, the sentiment that art is for the elite, the wealthy, or higher-class, is slowly dwindling.

“Art allows you to expand your horizon, to experience creativity, to appreciate the world we live in,” Bruce says. “That should not be limited to just those who have the means to support those institutions.”

Individuals with an EBT card can have up to three additional people accompany them for free admission into GRAM, and are allowed to partake in any programs running that day that would be available to those who have paid regular admission. This includes their Saturday drop-in studio hours, museum tours, lectures, and any other services offered.

Bruce says on the day it was announced that GRAM would be participating, already there were people using this opportunity to their advantage.

“You don’t even have to fill out a form, you don’t have to provide all sorts of background information, you simply show your card and you’re allowed entry,” says Bruce. “And we honor the food assistance card from all 50 states. So it’s not just Michigan residents who can participate. Anyone in the country who is visiting Grand Rapids, who has an EBT card, can come to us free of charge whenever they would like.”

One of the more rewarding benefits of programs like this in the art community, Bruce explains, is the way it continuously allows conversation to ebb and flow in new directions.

“When we open our doors, and more people have access, more people can participate in the conversation, more people can voice their opinions, voice their views, and discuss their interpretations of those works of art,” he says. “It’s not my interpretation of a work of art that matters. It’s not the directors, it’s not a specific art historian, or guest who gets to say what an object means, because it means something different to each and every person who views it.

By removing those barriers, by inviting the community in and engaging in thoughtful conversation, we get to see what people see. We get to look at the world through their eyes, and it’s amazing — the conversations you have when you’re talking about a work of art. I’ve been at the museums for around eight and a half years now, and I am still surprised at the conversations I have in front of objects that I’ve been discussing [this] entire time.”

These magical moments, he says, are the ones they get to share when they work with programs like Museums for All.

Images courtesy of the Grand Rapids Art Museum.
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