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Art Museums Increasingly Dependent on Private Wealth, Study Affirms

Museums in North America continue to be dependent on private philanthropy to expand their collections and mount shows.

A chart from the AAMD’s “Art Museums By the Numbers 2016” report (all screenshots via aamd.org)

The “Art Museums by the Numbers” report, released on Monday by the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), breaks down the ways in which art museums are now being managed. The report, which gathers data from art museums across North America, intends to “inform thinking both inside and outside the field on art museums’ operations and how they serve their communities.” Highlights include the breakdown of average annual operating expenses, showing that similar to years past, 32% was spent on arts-focused activities (such as temporary exhibitions, curatorial endeavors, education, and the library), 19% on infrastructure, 15% on administration, and 23% on revenue-generating activities, including development, memberships, benefit events, marketing and PR, and catering. A reputed 11% of annual budgets go toward a somewhat mysterious “other,” which represents a small increase from the previous year.

A chart from the AAMD’s “Art Museums By the Numbers 2016” report

This is the third year the AAMD has conducted this report, which, compared with last year’s, shows a slight increase in museum attendance, with roughly 62 million as opposed to around 61 million in 2015. However, overall membership was slightly down, from 1.9 million to 1.8 million. In many areas, changes are essentially flat or very small. These include contributions to art museums (such as benefit events, individual and family memberships, corporate contributions, and foundations and trusts) and the sliding scale of admission charges, which range from allowing all in for free, adopting a suggested donation policy, or charging set rates. Museum revenue per visitor has averaged to $3.70, when only admission charges are calculated, and to $7.99 when gift shop purchases and dining are included. The average cost to the museum per visitor is an average of $54.50.

A chart from the AAMD’s “Art Museums By the Numbers 2016” report

In terms of revenue sources, there has been a 2% drop in government support from the previous year — not a significant figure. However, there is a correlating set of statistics that reveals how much museums have become and continue to be dependent on private philanthropy to expand their collections and mount shows. Over 22,000 objects that were acquired in 2016 were purchased, while more than four times that number of items were donated to museums or received by bequest. More, in 2015 a little more than three times as many objects were borrowed from galleries, artists, state and private collections compared to those loaned to other institutions; in 2016 that ratio increased to almost five times as many.

This information suggests that the relationship that North American art museums have historically had with wealthy patrons continues apace — with museums borrowing works from private hands to successfully mount exhibitions. Museums have long depended on the largesse of those who privately own important collections and are actively courting the next generation to create relationships that will result in major donations and continued financial support. Perhaps now, this relationship is more significantly impacting the ways in which museums curate their shows.

The report Art Museums By the Numbers 2016 was released by the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) on Monday, January 9.

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