How Much Should a Museum Visit Cost?

Nicholas Brooks, "Full of Old Curiosities," 1890

As far as I can tell, everybody in the art world feels that America’s museums ought to be free—except for those who actually run America’s museums. Evidently, anyone who becomes museum director has to go under a cone of silence and learn Awful Realities.

It’s not hard to guess the broad outline of those realities. Government support for culture has been a hard sell with voters lately. Libertarians insist that all culture can be funded by the private sector. That notion, which is not so crazy at first glance, ignores the behavioral economics of museum fund raising. It’s (relatively) easy to get zillionaires to shell out for art acquisitions and new buildings; to get corporations to sponsor high-profile exhibitions. It’s much harder to raise money for the unglamorous day-to-day running of a museum. Admission and membership fees are generally a small part of a museum’s total income, but they are special: They can be used for actually running the place.

Museums therefore juggle two competing goals:

(a) No visitor should ever be turned away because s/he can’t afford admission

(b) It’s desirable to raise needed money from visitors who can afford it—and let’s face it, most museum visitors are not destitute.

Item (a) is one way that museums are different from BMW dealerships. Item (b) leads to debate every time a big museum raises its admission price, as the Metropolitan Museum is doing this week, by upping its suggested donation from $20 to $25 (effective July 1).

What museums want—to charge based on ability to pay—is nothing new. It’s called “differential pricing,” and it’s standard procedure for corporate America. The classic example is airlines, which charge one price to business VIPs, another to middle-class vacationers, and still another to website-wired college kids ready to fill seats at the last minute. It’s what Groupon is all about.

Differential pricing isn’t a new concept to museums, either. But they do it almost completely wrong. I happen to know a little about the subject, as I wrote a book, Priceless, on the psychology of price. The research involved talking to psychologists, behavioral economists, and “price consultants” who advise companies and organizations on deciding how much to charge. The Met is trying to achieve differential pricing with its “suggested” $25—since you can theoretically pay as little as a penny. Were museum visitors Mr. Spock-logical, that would be fine. But to get a discounted price, you basically have to look the admission seller in the eye and say “I’m poor.” Most visitors will instead pay $25 or close to it. Unfortunately, many others will figure $25 is way too expensive and won’t bother to ascend those Fifth Avenue stairs. This a problem, not only in terms of public service, but of the Met’s bottom line. The marginal cost of an additional museum visitor is very small. It’s losing potential visitors could pay $15 or $10 or $5 but are shamed by the suggested price.

Ray Johnson, "Esther Dollar Bill," 1970

Yes, I know there is a segment of the Met visitorship that pays a penny. They aren’t necessarily the poorest visitors. They’re more likely to be narcissist-egotist-skinflints: a personality type more than an income cohort.

A more common flavor of museum differential pricing is free days and free hours. Invariably these are off-peak hours when few working people with families can possibly attend. Museums are terrified of offering free admission on peak times, lest it cut into revenue.

(The one differential pricing scheme that museums get right: museum memberships, which amount to flat-rate plans for frequent visitors. It works for gyms and cell phone companies, and it works for museums.)

The Internet is transforming differential pricing in the for-profit sector. Museums might want to take a look at the pricing of the New York Times website. The NYT costs money at the newstand… is free on the web, as long as you read no more than 20 articles a month… after that, you have to buy a web subscription that is still a bargain next to a dead-tree subscription. Given that it takes money to run a newspaper with real reporting, this is hard to fault. But notice that the New York Times, a for-profit business, manages to give away a lot of free articles. Surely nonprofit museums, which have a greater obligation to serve the public, can embrace free admission more than they have.

My suggestion: Museums could charge one price at the box office and also advertise that free tickets and discounts are available online. Sign onto the website, enter a bare minimum of personal data (just enough to establish who you are), and get a free e-Ticket, good for any day or time in the next 30 days. Museums with lots of out-of-region visitors might want to restrict the freebies to local residents.

After that, you’d be eligible for a discount from the box-office price for buying admissions online. The discount would be enough to ensure that nearly all price-sensitive visitors buy online.

That in turn would permit museums to e-mail a free ticket to anyone who had not visited in three years (say). This generosity wouldn’t cost the museum much of anything, since such a visitor would be statistically unlikely to buy a ticket in the next 30 days. But it would result in a few extra extra visitors, people who wouldn’t have attended, had they had to pay.

Visitors who attend more frequently, demonstrating their ability and willingness to pay the discounted online admissions, wouldn’t need the incentive of free admission, and wouldn’t get it. Those who buy full-price admissions at the box office would, as with airlines, be the least cost-sensitive people.

J.S.G. Boggs, "$1 Fun Bill," c. 1990

There are many other possibilities. The museum site could ask for birth date or zip code as part of the sign-up for free/discounted tickets. This would allow it to target underserved communities with more frequent free admissions, or steeper discounts. Even so, the simple strategem of giving free admission to anyone who’s not attended in several years would probably achieve many of the same goals.

We are moving to a world in which Internet service is universal. We’re not there yet. As a stopgap, museums could print up paper free admission tickets and distribute them to schools, churches, and community groups in underserved communities. They might also consider offering free admission to anyone under 25. Most urbanites feel “poor” the first few years out of school, even if they’re not in absolute terms.

Julie Paquette, "Fluxus Bucks," 1990s

How much should a museum visit cost? My answer is—

• Full price (for anyone who truly doesn’t care about price, and cultural tourists)

• A discounted price (for repeat visitors who care enough to seek out a discount)

• Free (for everyone else: first-time local visitors, anyone who’s not visited their local museum in a long while, kids on school trips, museum members, college students, military families, etc.)

Hans-Peter Feldmann, "The Hugo Boss Prize 2010," 2011

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