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.)
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.