Tyler Green
Art-focused Journalism by Tyler Green

Tyler Green Modern Art Notes

Should LACMA (or your local museum) be free?

Pin It

At what point is it self-defeating and mission-negative for an art museum to charge admission?

That’s the question posed by new financial information posted online by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. (Kudos to LACMA for making their financials and tax filings readily available. More museums should do this.) [Image: The Broad Contemporary Art Museum at LACMA, via Flickr user Joevare.]

LACMA’s financial statements reveal that the museum spent $74 million in fiscal year 2010. That total includes the types of things museums do to be museums, such as $12 million for  exhibitions and collections management, $13.5 million on operations and public services, such as opening the doors and turning on the lights and $5 million on marketing and communications (such as, er, replying to my emails).

Meanwhile, over the same time period, LACMA brought in $88 million. Just under $25 million of that was from the residents of Los Angeles County, who give the museum an annual appropriation. The museum attracted $34 million in gifts from generous donors and another $8.5 million in a different kind of gift: museum memberships. The museum also brought in $2.5 million in admissions charges.

Yes, just $2.5 million. This is a good thing: It suggests that LACMA’s audience is pretty damn clever about  visiting when the museum is free: Out of the 51 hours LACMA is open each week, 13 of them are free to county residents. For eight hours on the second Tuesday of each month LACMA is  free to everyone. Holiday Mondays are free too. (Exceptions: Ticketed exhibitions.)

Therefore, LACMA earned 3.3 percent of its $74 million in expenses via admissions last year. Three percent!

When an art museum brings in such a small percentage of its operating expenses via admissions fees, does it make sense to charge admission at all? Wouldn’t an art museum better deliver on its mission by being free? (And by making up much of the lost admissions revenue through a likely increase in parking fees, restaurant and cafe visits, store expenditures and so on?) [Image: BCAM at LACMA via Flickr user Thomas Hawk.]

I think so. I don’t know what the magic number is, at what percentage of operating expenses coming in through admissions fees should cause a museum to re-consider whether it’s smart to charge general admission. I think that number is probably around three- or four-percent-and-below. (Perhaps some smart graduate student has done some research on this of which I’m unaware?) That would mean that only a handful of American museums — tourism-laden SFMOMA, FAMSF, the Art Institute of Chicago, MoMA, the Whitney, the Guggenheim, Philadelphia, the MFA Boston and maybe one or two others — would find it ‘worthwhile’ to charge admission. LACMA should join its peers — museums such as the St. Louis Art Museum, the Nelson-Atkins, Toledo, Minneapolis and others — in leading the way.

Update: I’ll try to post on this tomorrow or Monday, but the supposition that going free causes membership to zero out — or even decline significantly — is false. Furthermore, making general admission free while still charging for exhibitions would presumably have an even more minimal impact on membership. For example, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts is free and 2009 data shows it has about 25,000 members. UPDATE, Monday, 5/2: And here’s that very post.

Pin It


  1. Stephan says:

    It’s relevant to acknowledge that a lot of people buy memberships to avoid admissions prices (at least that’s a large part of why I do). I’m not sure to what extent that would matter though, but I’m sure it’d be a sizable percentage missing from that $8.5 million

  2. Will C. says:

    Hi Tyler,
    Thoughtful analysis, and I’d just like to add a couple other things to consider.

    First, membership income would likely decrease if the museum became free. If we assume that LACMA converts 1.5% of its on-site visitors to members, and we know that attendance last year (according to a C-Monster blog post from January) was 914,396, then we can assume that LACMA sold in the range of 13,700 memberships at the door. If we assume that the average membership income was $100 (which is probably low-balling it considering that those buying higher-level memberships would pull the average up), then you’re talking $1.7 million in revenue from membership sales at the door. Now, not ALL of that would be lost, but given that free admission is still the #1 reason that people purchase memberships, you would be losing a big chunk of that if the Museum went free. I know, still a drop in the overall $74 million bucket (and my math could be way off, for all I know), but just something additional to consider.

    Secondly, I don’t think you spent enough time on where that lost revenue would be made up. Let’s call it $3 million, just to be conservative (2.5 in lost admissions, and another .5 in membership). You’re not making an ADDITIONAL $3 million (or anywhere close) from the Museum Store and Cafe. I’m not sure they’d give you their numbers, but I bet they’d tell you anecdotally that is just not possible. You’re also not going to make that up in parking fees. Let’s say LACMA doubled their current $10 fee to $20. Without knowing how many cars park there now, you’d have to have an ADDITIONAL 100,000 cars parking there per year to make an extra $1,000,000 at $20 a pop.

    None of this really goes against the principle of your argument, but still as a museum administrator the first question is always going to be, “Ok, so where is the extra $3 million coming from every year?”


  3. Tyler Green says:

    I don’t know that research has shown that membership revenue drops when a museum goes from charging admission to being free. If memory serves — and I don’t have data available at the moment — there’s less of a correlation than is typically assumed.

    Also, not all of that revenue has to be “made up.” At some point — darn near to where admissions equals three percent of revenue — it should just be what a museum does: Factors being free into the cost of operating.

  4. Are you taking into account what strikes me as the likely possibility that at least some of the people who buy memberships do so for the free admission? I think it’s wonderful that LACMA’s making about four times as much money on memberships as it is on admission charges. But if the charge is what’s motivating a significant number of people to join, there may be more revenue at stake than just the $2.5 milion. Of course, “Keep LACMA free” would make an awfully catchy fundraising motto, so…

  5. Jennifer says:

    I have also questioned the value of charging admission when it comprises so little of a museum’s overall income. I agree that more comparisons are needed. For instance, the Getty is free, but parking is at a premium. They receive 10X the amount of visitors of many of the fee-charging institutions in LA, which, in the end, is fantastic exposure for art. I wonder about the increased need for staffing to manage the higher number of visitors and the wear-and-tear costs on a facility versus the amount spent at the gift shop, restaurant, and parking. Another model of interest is the “suggested donation” the MET uses. About ten years ago, I vaguely recall hearing that the average per person admission donation at the MET was about $6–most people giving less, and some people giving significantly more. I suspect these are the two most-visited art museums in the US, and would be curious to know if the overall visitor revenue is higher at these institutions than at admission charging ones. I am so glad you are asking the question!

  6. Stuart says:

    I’ve been a member for almost 20 years and would continue if it were free. Although a “free” museum sounds nice, I don’t think it would help attendance. Once something is free all the time, it loses it’s perceived value to the casual enjoyer. Having one free day per month focuses those goers to remember the date and therefor helps ensure they’ll actually go. Once something is always available, those casual attenders just wouldn’t bother – the specialness is gone.

    Plus, $10 parking is steep already. The neighborhood has limited free parking on side streets, so the idea of boosting parking further would be outrageous. The Getty can get away with it because you HAVE to use the parking lot to even drive there.

    The restaurants and store just wouldn’t make up the difference. Anything I can buy in the store I can get cheaper online somewhere.

    A better idea may be to give the public another day or two per month of free attendance and monitor the effects on traffic. I bet that there would not be too many more people taking advantage of it. I think it’s likely that there are just so many people interested in going to the museum regularly and fortunately, most of us don’t mind the once-a-year price tag.

  7. Mark Hayward says:

    Museums should not be free for most people. There are many ways to provide access to people who can’t afford admission or who traditionally don’t attend. Admission revenues are typically operating funds used for unsexy things like buying toilet paper and keeping the lights on, things that are hard to fund through grants or philanthropy.

  8. michael says:

    yes of course museums should be free, art should be there for the benefit of all people, it is based on Inspiration that comes from normal live, and thus it would be normal if the results would be accessible for all. There are lots of museums i do not visit because of financial reasons. I can take my family to a museum or I can buy food for us for 3 to 4 days.

  9. Sherry says:

    I work at a science center and I know that our admissions are a key part of our revenue; 65% in fact. Our membership is shared with three other large museums in the area, so we don’t get the full cut of those. We are surviving partially because government funding is only 5% of our income, as opposed to 25% of other science centers nationally. Without admissions, we would not be able to keep our doors open and do all the great mission-related programs we have. Perhaps because the art museums get more donations (I suppose it’s sexier to support the arts) they could survive without.

  10. EDR says:

    Tough one, especially because funding has become so hard to come by lately. However, people are still willing to take their families on outings – to the movies (have you paid for a movie ticket and popcorn lately?), or to amusement parks, etc. The point is to make your museum interactive, relevant and memorable. When the family gets together for the weekend, you want to be on the list of attraction options that they are willing to pay for. Even if there isn’t an admission price, be sure to elicit patrons’ desire to donate if they can.

  11. Greg says:

    The fact that Minneapolis Museum of Art is free and has 25,000 members isn’t, on its own, proof that being free is the best choice for other museums. A museum that is free and has been for some time (which I’m assuming that this one is) would have achieved an equilibrium as far as membership sales goes; the fact that it has been successful at selling memberships under its circumstances doesn’t necessarily mean that a museum that goes from pay to free wouldn’t experience a shock to its membership sales when this shift takes one motivation to purchase memberships away.

    That said, it also doesn’t disprove anything. I’ll be interested to see your follow-up, hopefully with the experiences of museums that have made the transition from pay to free.

  12. Nathan says:

    Our museum–although a fraction of the size and annual budget of LACMA–is considering going to free admission. One important thing to factor into the analysis is that, although memberships and admissions bring in revenue, they also cost a great deal to administer. We actually loose money by employing front line staff to sell tickets. Additionally, although monies earned from membership adds to the overall revenue of the institution, when you analyze a membership program as a whole (staff costs, member events, mailings, etc vs. the money you take in) membership programs are usually a break-even prospect at best. Membership programs are really about loyalty and *hopefully* donor cultivation. The biggest problem that I have seen, which is really an intangible consequence, is if you are undermining the value of a museum visit by allowing it to be free. I’ve not seen a great deal of research around that, and I would be curious if people value a museum experience less if they dont have to pay for it.

  13. […] museums be free? Modern Art Notes has an intriguing discussion on that topic. I’m not convinced by the argument made (as I […]

  14. […] week I published this post arguing in favor of art museums offering free general admission. My argument was that admissions fees can sometimes be […]

  15. Carol Diehl says:

    In London the Tate Modern, the Tate Britain, and the V & A are free, and hardly undervalued!

  16. […] your local museum go free? Yes, and here’s why. Will it hurt your local museum’s membership program? Evidence suggests that it will not. […]

  17. Grace says:

    I agree with Tyler. LACMA provides free admission for children under 18 and provides one free adult ticket per child. I don’t have to pay for LACMA admission when we go as a family. But, my husband and I are so appreciative of the free admission, we end up buying a patron membership anyway.

    Lowering the cost of admission increases goodwill and opened my pocketbook. We’ve even donated to building campaigns. The minute they stop providing free admission to all children, they lose our goodwill.

  18. […] are also signs that the Los Angeles County Museum of Art might finally be considering addressing its admissions fee problem: LACMA recently announced that it will be studying ‘audience engagement’ as part of an […]

  19. […] or ten percent. LACMA, like most other museums not reliant on tourism-related revenue, is typically around three or four percent. So 25 percent? Good luck with that. Next, the story (and perhaps the museum) seems to hold out a […]

  20. […] An interesting read on museums and money: ”Should LACMA (or your local museum) be free?” The author explains that LACMA brings in about $88 million a year, and only two percent of […]

Add a Comment