Is the North American Reciprocal Museum Membership (NARM) Worthwhile?

Last year, I finally tried something I’ve been meaning to try for a while. Instead of buying memberships at both the San Jose Art Museum and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, I bought a $150 membership at the San Jose Art Museum which included a North American Reciprocal Museum (NARM) membership (as well as membership in two other reciprocal museum organizations the San Jose Art Museum is a part of.) As a result, it seemed, I’d be a member of the San Jose Art Museum and be able to freely visit other museums I like, including the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the Asian Art Museum, Yerba Buena Gardens, and SFMOMA.

As it turned out, I barely used the membership. Last summer, I was on a driving strike because of gas prices, and only visited the Legion of Honor once. That fall, we went on our great cross-country trips, and the museums we did visit were either free (like the Smithsonian), too big (like the Chicago Art Institute), or too specialized (like the Spy Museum) to be covered in the NARM membership. And afterwards, I was busy catching up and then working on a big writing project into March.

So was it worthwhile? Personally, no. Every museum I saw which advertised a level of membership with NARM benefits hinted (or openly stated) that you will be treated like a member when visiting the other membership museums, namely that you’ll get in as a member and that you’ll have the membership discount at the museum store. However reality is more along buyer beware lines: museums will conform only to the terms of the membership as stated on the NARM site, which gives them broad leeway on how, when and if to honor reciprocal membership.

This was most obvious when I tried to use my card at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. If you have a membership there, you can zip through a members entrance, and visit special exhibitions for free and as often as you like. With a NARM membership, you have to wait in the regular line, which can be intimidatingly long and slow on weekends and with popular special exhibitions. And even then, the NARM membership only lets you see the standard galleries: you’ll still have to pay a surcharge (from $2 to $10) if you want to see the special exhibit. And believe me, the museum staff makes it very clear they’re miffed you bought your NARM membership at a museum other than theirs.

That said, the few other museums honored reciprocal membership cheerfully. We saw the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego’s Balboa Park; we had fun discovering the Museum of Quilts and Textiles (as well as the First Street art walk we have to take to get there);  and we just had a wonderful time at the Charles M. Schulz Museum. At all these places the membership was cheerfully honored. And if I’d had the time, I know I would have worked that membership and gone to some of the other interesting museums the membership included, like COPIA (which unfortunately closed, I hope temporarily, in December), the Oakland Museum, and the Monterey Art Museum.

I liked being able to give to my local museum, which I hope will continue to evolve and grow, and have just one card for many museums. And if you have a local museum that you really like and you know you’d be visiting other museums on the NARM list in your area once or twice, the membership may be worthwhile. But most of the other art museums around here don’t charge very much, or they have free days once a month: and, frankly, at the Asian Art Museum and SFMOMA, the more people crowded around and commenting on the art, the better. I doubt I’d be paying $100 or $150 for admission if I didn’t have a NARM card and just paid to go in. It was the Fine Arts Museums cross-membership that really counted for me, but I didn’t think reciprocal membership meant having to wait in line, pay a surcharge, and be sneered at. For all I know the Fine Arts Museums are extra snobby this year, or maybe they’re typical, and the few other museums I saw were the exception. But I know my next San Jose Art membership will be a less expensive, more regular one, and I probably won’t buy membership at the Fine Arts Museums at all.

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