They have become the gift of choice for people seeking last-minute presents for their cultured loved ones.
Now, the last major art institution in Britain not to offer a membership scheme has finally relented – with the National Gallery announcing it will be launching its own annual subscription service.
The esteemed central London gallery, which was founded in 1824, said it had decided to start a membership scheme years after its rivals because of the need to fill financial holes left by government cuts.
Those who sign up to the scheme – which costs from £50 a year – can get into any exhibition for free, as well as have access to after-hours events and online gallery news. But unlike other major London galleries, there will be no members’ room.
Nicholas Penny, the director of the National Gallery, said: “There are people who feel they are already members of the National Gallery and they would like some official recognition of the fact.”
When people see the forthcoming exhibitions, including on Rembrandt and Goya, he added, “it will be very hard for them to resist becoming members”. He also indicated that it was no coincidence that the memberships were being launched in the run-up to Christmas.
The National Gallery’s scheme comes decades after other major institutions in London. Tate launched its original scheme in 1958 and has 114,000 currently signed up. The British Museum, which has 75,000 members, established its own scheme in 1969 and was followed eight years later by the Royal Academy of Arts.
Stephen Deuchar, the director of the museum-fundraising charity the Art Fund, which has 110,000 members, said: “Membership schemes are becoming a more central part of museum economies. They are always looking at different ways to bring people closer.”
He added: “It is increasingly seen as a good gift idea that can be seen in the increases across the biggest institutions.”
Dr Penny said: “We have done a tremendous amount of research and we are very confident this is something people will go for. We are not going to lose out over this, that’s for sure.”
National museums and galleries are looking at raising funds in more creative ways as they face a 15 per cent cut in government funding over the next three years. “The gallery is concerned with increasing its self-generated income, so this is one aspect of that,” Dr Penny said.
The gallery believes that its forthcoming show Rembrandt: The Late Works will encourage many visitors to sign up for membership, though it would not release its projections for the scheme.
The gallery’s director also revealed the institution recorded a record number of visitors in 2013, breaking six million for the first time and up 17 per cent on a year earlier.
Another landmark ruling this year was the gallery’s decision to lift the ban on visitors taking photographs, which had caused some complaints.
“Of course, I have had some letters of concern from people about their experience in the gallery but we have had some positive responses from other people,” Dr Penny said.
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