Downtime in the city

By Aviva Einhorn

At the beginning of any semester, monotonous introductions and syllabi reviews generally preface the oncoming workload, leaving many students time to spare before wading into the deeper end of academia.

So how do you spend that time without spending money? Visit museums.

Some Chicagoans are experts on the art of “free living” and have discovered the secret sweet spots and metaphorical back alleys through the city’s intriguing and often expensive museums, cultural landmarks and tourist attractions.

For years, Chicago residents have been encouraged to participate in “free days” at museums throughout the city, and this winter is no different.

In an effort to make Chicago museums accessible to a wider audience and increase traffic to the exhibits, each museum is required by Illinois’ Park District Aquarium and Museum Act to have 52 annual free days. According to Beth Boston, Public Relations Manager at the Museum of Science and Industry, 5700 S. Lake Shore Drive, the museum has approximately 1.5 million guests per year.

In 2009, $9,146,690.00 came from general admission fees, as stated in the Museum of Science and Industry’s 990 tax form. According to Boston, this number accounts for approximately half of all admitted guests.

“Approximately half of our guests do not pay admission,” Boston said. “Free days tend to be busy days for us, as they are a great value. The attendance increase on each free day depends on the time of year, day of the week and other such factors.”

He said the museum strategizes the scheduling of their free days. Taking into account holidays, weekends and other such variables.

“Our free days are placed carefully throughout the year to manage crowding and allow for a great experience for those visiting,” Boston said.

In addition to museum free days, there are some Chicago attractions are free year-round, including The National Museum of Mexican Art, 1852 W. 19th St., home to one of the country’s largest collections of Mexican art.

“The museum has always been free and will always be free,” said Anel Ruiz, Communications Manager at the NMMA. “It is our belief that this art should be readily accessible to everyone.”

Ruiz said she looks forward to celebrating the museum’s 25th anniversary on Jan. 20 and encourages the public to visit for the celebratory exhibitions.

Taking advantage of the city’s handouts can make a big difference with the suffering economy and the average college student’s looming debt, said Trevor Schmutz, sophomore art and design major at Columbia.

Schmutz said he always looks for free things to do in Chicago. A self-proclaimed penny pincher, Schmutz said resources exist for students to save money and still participate in events and explore the city’s attractions.

According to Shmutz, between campus events and free days at museums, he rarely spends money on extracurricular activities.

“You just have to open your eyes and learn what’s out there.” Shmutz said. “The Garfield Park Conservatory, Lincoln Park Zoo, Millennium Park, [and] the beaches in the summertime; all of those are free. It’s easy to enjoy the city and spend very little money.”