THE COST OF BELONGING

The Sceptical Shopper: arts and sports fans are being lured into membership schemes. But do they get value? Our undercover expert reports

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, January/February 2013

What is the price of friendship? Beyond computation, a sage might say—but he would be wrong. At the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, it costs $75; at the Globe Theatre in London, £40—unless you want to be a Best Friend, in which case it’s £125.

In recent years membership schemes have become the Viagra of cultural and sporting institutions, from the Morgan Library in New York to Surrey County Cricket Club. You have only to join the crowd at the Oval—noticeably more middle-class and white than it used to be—to spot the effect; while at the Donmar Warehouse, once a London hub for student theatre-goers, well-heeled fiftysomethings now dominate.

The cost of joining, and the benefits offered, vary bewilderingly. At one end, membership of Shandy Hall—the enterprising little museum occupying the novelist Laurence Sterne’s former home in Yorkshire—is a bargain at £7. At the other, at La Scala in Milan, €520,000 a year will get you an invitation to every opening night, and even a vote on the board. 

Whether these schemes offer value for money depends on the use you make of them. Take the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where individual membership—allowing unlimited access to exhibitions—costs $85. Given that daily admission is $25, this clearly makes sense for anyone visiting more than three times a year; add the fact that your entire subscription is tax-deductible and it seems folly to say no. 

A further benefit of membership—particularly at a gallery such as the Uffizi in Florence—is that it allows you to swan past the queues which coil round the block like a monster from Dante’s Inferno. The fee of €60 buys admission to just about anywhere in Florence you might want to go, from the Medici Chapel to the Boboli Gardens. Becoming a Friend of the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, for $250 gives you free access to more than 500 museums in America, Canada and beyond—though art-lovers may not be impressed to find the World Golf Hall of Fame in Florida on the list. 

The cheapest deals are often for those who live too far away to make frequent visits—for example, the Metropolitan Museum’s $60 rate for anyone based more than 200 miles from New York. The next consideration is whether you want to go alone or accompanied: individual membership at the Met costs $100, while dual/family membership is $200. 

But if the arithmetic for galleries and museums is simple, it is less so for other organisations. Virtually all offer fringe benefits: discounts in their shops and restaurants, a magazine (the Royal Academy’s is impressive, English Heritage’s less so), even—with a hint of desperation—"exclusive phone and desktop wallpaper". The top levels of membership will probably bring a chance to meet the organisation’s luminaries, with the details hinging on how much you pay. At a provincial gallery such as Compton Verney in Warwickshire, £5,000 allows you to take five friends to lunch with the director; up the road at the Royal Shakespeare Company, £10,000 buys invitations to "meet some of those RSC actors who have become household names". 

In the end, though, what most people are paying for is the opportunity to book before the rest of us. As the Chelsea FC website smugly announces, "'Sold Out' is a common sight at Stamford Bridge. During the 2011-12 season, just a handful of tickets went on general sale." If you can’t live without the sight of 11 men in blue charging up and down a pitch, then you need to grit your teeth and pay £25 just to have a chance of buying a £50 match ticket. Still, it’s a bargain compared with the grandest of the cricket clubs, the MCC, which charges an astonishing £215 registration fee to join its 18-year waiting list.

It’s easy to see why these schemes are so actively promoted. They’re straightforward to run, bring in extra revenue and give customers a vested interest in coming back. How far they benefit the general public is another question. They may suit the wealthy, who will hardly notice the price, and senior citizens, who have the leisure to take maximum advantage of the perks on offer. But those with neither time nor money to spare are likely to feel frozen out and hard done-by.

There is some prospect of change. The Donmar Warehouse recently announced that it was not taking on any more members, because it wanted to attract a wider audience and "break through the perception that you can’t get a ticket". Others may follow suit; in the meantime, choose your friends wisely.

Illustration Richard Rockwood