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Resolve for an artful 2011

What have you resolved on New Year's Eve the last few years? To lose weight? Exercise more? Save money? This year, rather than the classic standbys, how about resolving to take advantage of more cultural offerings?

When was the last time you went to a museum? They've changed, you know. No longer are museums the stuffy pretension palaces of your youth, where curators seemed to delight in making exhibits bloodlessly academic. Today museums want you to enjoy yourself while being exposed to great art or antiquities.

And it's not just Tutankhamen's gold funerary mask that draws people; museum curators have figured out how to breathe life into American folk art, industrial design and even exhibits as seemingly sleep-inducing as Medieval Europe's tomb sculptures.

For some, the expense of going to museums keeps them away. As an avid purveyor of museums, I know how the creeping inflation of admission prices — where many institutions now charge $15 or more — can be a real barrier. But this year I found a program that lets you into nearly 500 art, cultural and history museums around North America for free by becoming a member of one museum at a donation level of at least $100. Of course, not everyone has the capacity to join a museum for $100 or more, though it may also qualify as a tax deduction. But for those who can swing it, this is the most amazing opportunity for art appreciators since Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir propped their easels along the Seine for passersby to glimpse. And almost no one knows about it.

Allow me to introduce you to NARM, the North American Reciprocal Museum program. If you join one of the participating museums at the level that qualifies for a gold NARM sticker, (see the list at tinyurl.com/dcxeqp) it is as if you have joined them all. NARM entitles you to free admission as well as member discounts at museum shops, concerts and lecture offerings. The idea is to give higher-dollar members an incentive premium, which is why the NARM rules say participating museums must require at least a $100 donation for a museum member to obtain a NARM sticker. (Some museums charge more for that privilege, so call around to find the best deal.)

Let me tell you about my fabulous year on NARM.

Living in St. Petersburg turns out to be a little corner of NARM heaven. All the major art institutions take part. My golden ticket, which comes from my membership to the Morean Arts Center, gains me entry to the world renowned Salvador Dalí Museum, St. Petersburg's exceptional Museum of Fine Arts, the incomparable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, the new Tampa Museum of Art, as well as a number of other regional favorites.

So far, 49 museums in Florida alone are part of NARM. The volunteer manager of the program, Virginia Phillippi, who works at the Greenville County Museum of Art in South Carolina, says that the program currently has 468 participating museums and cultural institutions across North America, adding 15 to 20 each quarter. She does little marketing. Still, more and more keep joining.

My travels took me this year to Austin, San Antonio and Dallas, Texas, as well as Washington, D.C., and at each location my NARM card was at the ready and advantageous. The only glitch I encountered was when I went to the Phillips Collection in Washington to see a special showing of works by Georgia O'Keeffe only to be told my NARM card wouldn't qualify me for free admission. It was a mistake on the museum's part, according to NARM manager Phillippi, who says that sometimes a museum staff doesn't fully appreciate the rules. Special shows can be excluded, but only if that is established in advance.

Some of my favorite museums are part of NARM, from big ones (though not the grand dame Metropolitan in Manhattan — yet), to the smaller jewels, such as the Bata Shoe Museum (yes, shoes!) in Toronto, and the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, Pa., which features works by the Wyeths, a great American family of artists.

Now that you know, let NARM be your cultural passport for the new year. Finally, a resolution that doesn't involve eliminating carbs or joining a gym.

Resolve for an artful 2011 01/01/11 [Last modified: Saturday, January 1, 2011 3:30am]

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