“We’ve noticed a 25 percent increase in attendance since going free,” whispers an unnamed UCLA Hammer Museum source in The Hollywood Reporter. That echoes a July report credited to the Hammer’s Samuel Vasquez, director of events and visitor experience. The Hammer instituted free admission this February. (Above, a Barbara Kruger staircase install at the Hammer).
Those following the free v. fee debate know that a few museums in the U.S. and U.K. have claimed doubled or better attendance after eliminating admission fees. But the effect of going free clearly depends on how high the admission was before. As a university museum the Hammer had already been free to its core audience of UCLA students and faculty. Its $10 admission for others was relatively cheap by L.A. standards.
The Indianapolis Museum is often cited as the great free admission success story. Its attendance doubled after director Maxwell Anderson dropped a $7 admission in January 2007. That factoid merits an asterisk. The IMA had been free from 1941 until 2006, when it began charging $7. Attendance sagged, then rebounded when the admission was eliminated.
I’d bet that the Hammer is a better model than the IMA for shaping realistic expectations about visitor counts following free admission. For those who know how hard it is to move the needle on attendance, 25 percent is a lot.