Last week I published this post arguing in favor of art museums offering free general admission. My argument was that admissions fees can sometimes be such a small percentage of a museum’s revenue that the admissions cost can become an impediment to mission fulfillment. (Think of it this way: If a museum charges a family of four $45 plus $10 parking, is it really making itself accessible to the broadest possible audience? No. Lots of families can’t afford that. A barrier-to-entry seems especially unnecessary if admissions fees provide only, say, three percent of museum revenue.)
Within a few hours of publishing the post, a LACMA spokesman (and many MAN readers) asked me if I was forgetting about membership programs and how important they are to art museums. After all, in fiscal year 2010 LACMA brought in $2.5 million in admissions fees, but earned $8.5 million from its membership program. The LACMA spokesperson suggested I was short-sightedly proposing something that would lead to a zeroing-out of membership revenue. The museum was not prepared to forgo that $8.5 million, she said. [Image via Flickr user brainpicker.]
But do museums that go free really cost themselves membership revenue — let alone lose it all? Several years ago I published this post detailing membership programs at free museums. And for years since, museum directors — especially directors of free museums — have proudly pointed to the continued strength of their membership programs as indicators of support both for their museums and for microphilanthropy in their communities. So late last week I contacted four museums that went from charging admission to having free general admission. All are broad, historical museums such as LACMA. Here’s what happened at each museum:
The Baltimore Museum of Art: With initial support from Baltimore City and Baltimore County, the BMA eliminated general admissions fees in October, 2006. In the first year thereafter, the BMA suffered a modest eight percent decline in membership. Today the museum is off about ten percent from its 2006 membership level. (Over the same period, Baltimore’s population fell five percent.) However, the museum saw “significant increases” in donations from upper-level donors to whom it was important that the museum and its collections be accessible to all for free, including to an endowment whose funds are specifically earmarked to ‘cover’ admissions cost. Today that endowment stands at $2.7 million. [Image: The facade of the BMA's John Russell Pope-designed building, via Flickr user M.V. Jantzen.]
The Indianapolis Museum of Art: When the IMA opened an expansion in 2005, it charged admission, and did again in 2006. It went free at the beginning of 2007 and saw its membership increase three percent over the next year.
The Minneapolis Institute of Arts: The MIA went free in 1989. That year the museum had 14,825 members. In the first year after the MIA went free, its membership increased 33 percent. For the last several several years the MIA’s membership has hovered between 20,000 and 24,000.
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art: The Nelson-Atkins became free in 2001, when then-director Marc Wilson presented the ‘free’ to his board as being a revenue-neutral proposition. Thanks in part to the instigation of a $5 parking charge, the museum says that its free general admission policy has indeed worked out that way. (Note: It’s pretty easy to find free or metered parking near the N-A, too.) While the Nelson-Atkins declined to share specific numbers with MAN, it says that membership was at about 10,000 before the museum eliminated general admission and that it has stayed at about that level since 2001. “Free admission has not had an impact on our membership numbers,” museum spokesperson Kathleen Leighton said. In 2006, MAN talked with Wilson about how important free admission was to the museum. [Image: The Nelson-Atkins' Bloch Building, via Flickr user marcteer.]
Previously: Should art museums that derive only three or four percent of their revenue (or less? or more?) from admissions fees go free?