Princeton University Art Museum offers free six-month memberships

The Princeton University Art Museum is closed, but you can still experience the art online. Photo taken Sunday by Krystal Knapp.

When the COVID-19 pandemic shut their doors, museums across the country quickly ramped up their online offerings and virtual tours so people could explore art from home. The Princeton University Art Museum has gone a step further, offering free six-month memberships.

While you’re stuck at home, you can sign up for free remote classes, experience a sculpture via video, or listen to online discussions with museum curators.

“In a time when people are experiencing so much stress, anything that helps us manage that or have a sense of hope for the future is important,” said James Steward, director of the Princeton University Art Museum.

He said the offer is a way of giving the communities around the university something of value during a difficult time. The virtual membership was launched two months ago, and more than 1,700 people have already signed up.

Members receive access to exclusive virtual programming, a subscription to the museum’s weekly e-newsletter, a mailed copy of the spring issue of the Museum’s magazine, and a discount at the Museum Store, according to the museum website. Enrollment ends May 31. Existing members of the museum will also be offered a six-month extension, free of charge.

Steward said he has always believed in the ability of art to build empathy and bring beauty into peoples’ lives. In the current crisis, “I think that’s still true,” he said, “but I would then layer on other things, like that art can provide a kind of solace, it can remind us of the durability of humankind.”

He said felt it was important to extend the offer to everyone in the community by eliminating financial barriers. The museum also offers free admission under regular circumstances.

“A great museum should be about an elite experience, not elite access,” Steward said. He also discussed plans to continue removing both accessibility and perceptual barriers, in addition to financial ones.

“We’re not naive about the fact that not everyone has digital access,” Steward said. He hopes to partner with the municipality or social service organizations in the future to address the issue, for example, by providing free broadband downtown.

He also addressed the common misconception that the museum is only for members of the Princeton University academic community, emphasizing that everyone is welcome.

“I think we’ve improved a lot in the last few years, making the community at large feel engaged and invited,” he said.

In some ways, museum staff members were in a good position to make the online transition. The museum was planning to close at the end of the year for construction, and so much of the digitization groundwork was already laid when businesses were forced to close in March.

“We were also already exploring the idea of offering free memberships, but hadn’t done a full financial analysis yet,” Steward said. Museum staff were also looking at creating digital teaching packages, with the idea of rolling them out next year. Both projects were sped up in response to the pandemic.

The museum’s digital platform has allowed Steward and his team to broaden their audiences. Weekly Thursday evening remote lectures have drawn crowds of 900 to 1,300 participants from all over the world, far more than could fit in the museum auditorium for an in-person event.

Steward intends to sustain a digital element, he said, “even when we have in-person programming again, so that those who can’t attend in person can continue to participate online.”

However, he stressed that virtual events and galleries are not intended to replicate the exact experience of engaging with art in-person. Steward sees the museum as a social space, where individuals can share in their consumption of art in a way that “is far less likely to happen in the digital environment.”

One of the most exciting parts of his job, he said, is seeing strangers in the gallery who are so compelled by what they are looking at, that they engage with one another. There are certain emotional, social, and intellectual elements that are unique to experiencing art in-person, Steward said.

“Even in the days of the most sophisticated digital replications, the original, the thing that has borne the patina of age and been touched by the hand of the artist, is simply irreplaceable,” he said.

Steward hopes to reopen the museum within the next six months, in which case all current, virtual memberships would continue with the added benefits of in-person visits.