Looking at the Data Behind Free Museum Admission

The Smithsonian Insitute's museums have long offered free admission (Image via Wikimedia)
The Smithsonian Castle; the Smithsonian Institute’s museums have long offered free admission. (photo via Wikimedia Commons)

The question of whether or not art museums should be free tends to get people riled up. Last December, Christopher Knight wrote passionately in favor of free admission in the Los Angeles Times, and more recently, the Guardian‘s Jonathan Jones argued just the opposite about museums in the UK. “In tough times, is it better for museums to sell off their treasures, to cut back staff, to shrink and dwindle,” he wrote, “or to charge an entrance fee?” 

But opinions aside, what do pure economics have to say about it? Nonprofit market researcher Colleen Dilenschneider recently took a look at the data to find out if free admission really helps engage underserved audiences and draw in new visitors. She presented her findings on her blog Know Your Bone, and they’re sure to disappoint those in the free admission camp.

Dilenschneider found that not having an entrance fee doesn’t actually help bring in new audiences all that much. Her first piece of evidence was Volker Kirchberg’s 1998 analysis, “Entrance Fees as a Subjective Barrier to Visiting Museums,” published in the Journal of Cultural Economics. The paper concluded that admission cost wasn’t as significant of a barrier to museum attendance as lack of time and interest. That study is backed up by data from the predictive technology company IMPACT (for which Dilenschneider also works), which shows that people who visit museums often care less about cost in comparison to time than the average US citizen. Similar data were collected in New Zealand and the UK, where only 11% and 8% respectively of museumgoers saw cost as a barrier.

Measuring intention to visit a museum by admission price again demonstrated that cost isn’t a major factor. Data from the National Awareness, Attitudes and Usage (NAAU) Study of Visitor-Serving Organizations shows that audiences actually indicated greater intention to visit organizations that charge more than $20 for admission.

The Baltimore Museum of Art, admission-free since 2006 (photo via Wikimedia Commons)
The Baltimore Museum of Art, admission-free since 2006 (photo via Wikimedia Commons)

And when free admission did spark higher visitor numbers, it was thanks to people who had returned for a second or third visit, according to NAAU data. “It may not be wholly accurate for an organization to declare success by citing raw attendance numbers as proof of the efficacy of a free admission policy,” Dilenschneider wrote. Free admission also doesn’t always help boost visitors numbers. The Smithsonian Institute museums, all free, had their total attendance decline 7% from 2012 to 2014, even as the US population increased and tourism to the US boomed. Dilenschneider pointed out that in 1997, the Baltimore Museum of Art had 320,000 visitors annually and charged them all an entry fee; it made admission free in 2006 and today its annual attendance is just 180,000.

“We need to reevaluate our strategy for engaging new audiences because the ‘free admission’ fix may not prove sustainable,” Dilenschneider wrote. “Moreover, focusing on free general admission may be distracting organizations from cultivating more effective engagement strategies and programs for reaching new audiences.”

It would be interesting to see a peer-reviewed study done on the subject and compare the results with Dilenschneider’s. Either way, it’s clear that for at least a small percentage of museum goers, cost is a barrier. If museums can find ways to charge admission while being inclusive of such individuals — by either making admission voluntary or having free nights or days, which many already do — it might be a win-win for everyone.

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