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Tyler Green Modern Art Notes

Does going free hurt membership programs?

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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?

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Comments

  1. [...] 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. Is that really J. Deitch’s best argument? » « Lewis Baltz’s [...]

  2. For me personally, I am more inclined to become a member of an institution that provides free admission. For me it’s a way in which I can donate to the organization that I believe in. As a 20 something grad student in DC if I were to pay each time I walked into a museum, I wouldn’t have the funds nor the same drive to give additionally to the institution. I give as a way of saying thank you to those institutions that provide free access.

  3. [...] Posted to MAN yesterday afternoon: Do museums that go free lose members? The answer will probably surprise you. [...]

  4. [...] media company (mingling with the likes of Twitter and the Huffington Post in the Top 10). … Modern Art Notes blogger Tyler Green has argued before that museums should go with free admissions (a case of [...]

  5. [...] 5. Not so much news as food for thought, Tyler Green has started an interesting debate: Does free admissions hurt museum memberships? I say, unfortunately yes. What say you? [MAN] [...]

  6. [...] empirical evidence to suggest that it’s based in reality. In fact, the opposite is true: Tyler Green has a fantastic post looking at museum memberships, showing that they generally increased after [...]

  7. [...] follow-up to the discussion about museums going free-admission from Modern Art Notes. Tyler Green offers four examples that demonstrate that it can be a viable [...]

  8. [...] Surprising answer to the question of whether museums going free hurts their membership http://bit.ly/jjUL0O [...]

  9. Now that the Honolulu Academy of Arts has merged with The Contemporary Museum, and have a new director—Stephan Jost—we are reassessing many thing, including admission (we now charge $10, which gets one into both venues). Revenue from admission is low, and in a state where many people work two and three jobs we are looking at whether we are as accessible as we can be to the community. Thanks for this great, helpful post.

  10. by Gary Landis

    Though this article is four years old, still relevant. The Cost of “Free”: Admission Fees at American Art Museums by Gypsy McFelter http://www.aam-us.org/pubs/mn/MN_JF07_cost-free.cfm

  11. [...] happened when the Indianapolis Museum of Art moved to a free-admission policy? Its paid membership increased by 3%. When the Minneapolis Institute of Arts did the same thing, paid membership increased by [...]

  12. [...] happened when a Indianapolis Museum of Art changed to a free-admission policy? Its paid membership increased by 3%. When a Minneapolis Institute of Arts did a same thing, paid membership increasing by [...]

  13. [...] happened when the Indianapolis Museum of Art moved to a free-admission policy? Its paid membership increased by 3%. When the Minneapolis Institute of Arts did the same thing, paid membership increased by [...]

  14. [...] happened when the Indianapolis Museum of Art moved to a free-admission policy? Its paid membership increased by 3%. When the Minneapolis Institute of Arts did the same thing, paid membership increased by [...]

  15. [...] happened when the Indianapolis Museum of Art moved to a free-admission policy? Its paid membership increased by 3%. When the Minneapolis Institute of Arts did the same thing, paid membership increased by [...]

  16. [...] stranieri. Pertanto la strategia dell’Auditorium ha puntato sulla creazione e successiva fidelizzazione di un nuovo consumatore cuturale che riesce a prediligere la programmazione del Parco della Musica [...]

  17. [...] happened when the Indianapolis Museum of Art moved to a free-admission policy? Its paid membership increased by 3%. When the Minneapolis Institute of Arts did the same thing, paid membership increased by [...]

  18. [...] museum go free? Yes, and here’s why. Will it hurt your local museum’s membership program? Evidence suggests that it will not. « Put a fork in the Hirshhorn’s Bubble? Blog Home Breaking news Pin It [...]

  19. [...] Erfahrungen der Kunstmuseen in Baltimore, Indianapolis, Minneapolis haben gezeigt, dass die Spendenfreudigkeit und Mitgliedszahlen in Fördervereinen steigen, sobald freier Eintritt gewährt wird. Auch die Zahlen des kostenfreien Tate Modern in London bestätigen dies eindrucksvoll. Dieses Museum zeigt neben einer sehr aktiven Akquisetätigkeit und einer beispielhaften Vermark­tung den Paradigmenwechsel vom Ausstellungsort zum urbanen Begegnungsraum. Museen sind nicht für Kunst gemacht, sondern für Menschen! Sie erschließen mit Workshops, Vorträgen, Filmvorführungen, Konferenzen und Kursen neue Interessierte und laden in Cafés, Shops und Restaurants zum Verweilen ein. [...]

  20. [...] Update: Tweeps are asking me how this would/will impact museum membership programs. Two things: One, at the DMA paid membership has increased significantly since the museum started Friends (and in terms of both dollars and humans). Details are in the magazine article, so drop $5 on it. Secondly, I’ve previously addressed that, albeit in anecdotal form, here. [...]

  21. [...] funding from donors invested in that mission can roll in–the Baltimore Museum of Art saw significant increases in upper-level donations after it implemented its free admission policy. When California’s [...]

  22. [...] International success for “Against the Grain.” In November, playwright Neil Wechsler announced plans to collaborate with the Burchfield Penney Art Center on a sprawling outdoor theater festival, the [...]

  23. [...] happened when the Indianapolis Museum of Art moved to a free-admission policy? Its paid membership increased by 3%. When the Minneapolis Institute of Arts did the same thing, paid membership increased by [...]

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