Service members and their families will have free entry into more than 1,600 of the nation's museums this summer through a joint venture between the National Endowment for the Arts and Blue Star Families.
It is the third year for the summer admission-fee waivers, which representatives from the endowment and the military support organization announced this week at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
The program began with about 600 participating museums in 2009 and its fast growth has been exciting, Rocco Landesman, chairman of the endowment said.
"It was really our idea along with Blue Star Families to give back to active-duty service members who defend this country and sacrifice every day, along with their families," Landesman said. "This is a way for museums to say 'thank you,' and also a way for them to build their partnership with DOD."
Landesman said he hopes that partnership will continue to grow and offer more of the arts to military families.
The free-admission program, known as Blue Star Museums, also "builds an audience of the future" for museums, Landesman said.
"Early exposure [to museums and art] is a critical element for building future exposure in the arts," he said.
More than 300,000 service members and their families took part in the program last summer, Landesman said.
Participating museums, including many children's museums, can be found in every state, he said, noting the program is ideal for service members and their families seeking entertainment on a limited budget.
Participating museums underwrite the waived fees, Landesman said, and it is unclear how much money they lose. Museum entrance fees range from more than $25, to some that have only nominal fees with suggested donations, he said. In those cases, he said, service members "could go in without paying, but I think they feel more welcome by knowing the fee is waived for them."
Service members can simply show up at a participating museum with their military identification card, and spouses may visit without the service member provided they show their ID card.
Here's a snapshot of museum offerings:
-- The Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience in Seattle's Chinatown is a Smithsonian affiliate that claims the nation's only museum devoted to the Asian Pacific American experience.
-- Reiff's Gas Station Museum in Woodland, Calif., is a circa 1950s gas station complete with antique gas pumps, a vintage tow truck, gas station signage and diner memorabilia.
-- Napa Valley Museum in Yountville, Calif., offers all the flavor of the valley, from wine tastings and tours to explorations of the region's history, culture and arts. Family Fun Days are held the second Saturday of each month and reservations are recommended.
-- The World Figure Skating Museum and Hall of Fame in Colorado Springs, Colo., honors the world's greatest skaters, from Dick Button and Scott Hamilton to Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov.
-- The American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame in Amarillo, Texas, showcases the western lifestyle and art, along with all things quarter horses.
-- The Lucy Craft Laney Museum of Black History in Columbus, Ga., which honors the 19th-century educator and other African American heroes from Georgia.
-- The Merry-Go-Round Museum in Sandusky, Ohio, displays original carousel animals dating from 1895 to the present.
-- Cooperstown, N.Y., hosts The Farmer's Museum with its 19th-century village and surrounding farm animals, toys and foods, and The Fenimore Art Museum, on the shores of Otsego Lake, which includes an array of American landscape, history and genre paintings, American folk art, photography and American Indian art.
Stephanie Himel-Nelson, a spokeswoman for Blue Star Families, said the organization started the program with NEA based on feedback from its annual military family surveys.
"We found that military families are really concerned about the up tempo they are facing and the effect on their children," she said. "We teamed up with the National Endowment with the hope that this would give military families the opportunity to bond, to reconnect, to spend a little more time together, to be part of something bigger than themselves and help ground them."
The program has become one of Blue Star Families' most popular, Himel-Nelson said.
"We hear from families that they've made this part of their annual routine," she said. "It's part of their annual battle rhythm as they travel across the country, either relocating or visiting family, that they work in visiting the museums."
The program is open to active duty military, and Guard and Reserve members.
For more information or to locate a participating museum, go to www.bluestarmuseums.org.
Blue Star Museums [ http://www.bluestarfam.org/Programs/Blue_Star_Museums ]
National Endowment for the Arts [ http://www.defense.gov/news/www.nea.gov ]