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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)

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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Laura C. Mallonee

Laura C. Mallonee is a Brooklyn-based writer. She holds an M.A. in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU and a B.F.A. in painting from Missouri State University. She enjoys exploring new cities and...

9 replies on “Looking at the Data Behind Free Museum Admission”

  1. I was at the free Cleveland Museum on Saturday afternoon. It was pretty empty. Once upon a time, city planners had created a landscaped formal park to house it, now completely deserted. The unused front entrance features a vandalized Rodan Thinker. I may have been the only person it see it that day. The location is forbidding and difficult to get to, and any walking-distance communities are shells of former neighborhoods, or the (incredibly ugly) Cleveland Clinic.
    When I mentioned my experience to my non-artist husband, he said people don’t want to go. But I say, there are more barriers than an entry fee: people are intimidated. All tastes are acquired, often based on class. If there’s a basic agreement that we need art for our minds & the quality of our lives, much as we need music, then an outreach effort has to be made. Free entry is not enough if people don’t know if exists, don’t have a pattern of going there, or are afraid to enter.

    1. It really has to be holistic, I agree people from all backgrounds need to be made welcome in many more ways than free entry. What I drew from this article is the clear connections though between repeat visits and free entry. Destination museums get people through the door readily as the cost is considered worth it for the experience of a lifetime. So everyone is willing to cough up the fee to say they’ve seen the Mona Lisa. I’d like people to think of museums like a community centre though – a place to go to see and do stuff regularly, and for that fees need to be either very low or non-existent.

      1. Have any museums tried elementary-school style outreach programs for adults? Bringing a bus around to communities, engaging with existing outdoor activities – like a community day. I think the Brooklyn museum has experimented with community outreach over the years, I don’t know how successfully.

    2. This is an extremely uninformed comment in my opinion, Sherry. I am a resident of Cleveland– University Circle, in fact, the “deserted” “shell of a former neighborhood” that you visited to attend the CMA. Your assessment of the area is wholly off base. Sure, there is some crime, that comes with being in urban Cleveland, but there are an abundance of important and thriving educational institutions and museums in the neighborhood, and Little Italy housed there. Parades, festivals and cultural activities are so numerous that you have to stay up on your calendar.

      Your description of the Rodin made me laugh…surely you were exaggerating in your belief that you “may have been the only person it see it that day.” I walk past the museum everyday and there is never a shortage of people looking up and admiring the statue, or posing for a photo imitating its pose. And were you aware that it was not simply “vandalized” by neighborhood kids, and left unrepaired by the administration? Much the opposite: it was “vandalized” in an act of protest by Vietnam War protesters decades ago. The museum intentionally (not out of necessity or lack of funds or interest) chose not to restore it, but to display it with the damage to the base unrepaired.

      The museum might have seemed empty to you because it’s Cleveland. I don’t think one should expect Met-like crowds because there simply isn’t the population of a huge city. The ability to visit a museum and not be surrounded by throngs of people is enjoyable to me. Still, I of course hope to see visitorship grow.

      And I agree with your point that many in the area may not take advantage of the free admission because they do not feel comfortable. I hope the museum and the community will keep implementing programs to appeal to the whole community, not just the rich, retired white couples who attend the museum’s larger events. I just wanted to share my thoughts in response to your comment. I don’t think your knowledge of the area/institution is great and your comment had a troubling and destructive tone when I read it.

      1. Point taken. My view of the Cleveland Museum, and the surrounding areas was based on a weekend visit – a ‘snapshot’ view. I have no doubt that there’s a great deal I could learn about Cleveland’s cultural history. Also, it’s August, and hot.
        I’m probably not as well travelled as many people who comment on this site; however, I like to walk around the town and to visit museums wherever I go. I’ve spent time in NYC (my home), Boston, DC, and San Francisco, but, as a comparison to Cleveland’s streets, waterfront accessibility and vitality, I thought of smaller cities, such as Scranton, Wilkes-Barre, and Easton PA, and Providence, RI. Those cities have made efforts to make their cultural and commercial areas friendly to locals and visitors. I may have missed that about Cleveland – I apologize for dismissing your city without knowing all the facts.
        That said, I stand by my observations.

  2. The BMA has had many variables that have impacted attendance over the years that have little to do with free admission. In the mid-1990s, the BMA hosted major exhibitions on Alexander Calder, Dale Chihuly, Andrew Wyeth, as well as treasures from the Victoria and Albert Museum that proved to be very popular with audiences. In 2000, the BMA began focusing less on attendance and more on building recognition of the museum’s great collection and showcasing new scholarship from our talented curators, which resulted in several nationally travelling exhibitions. The museum then began a multi-year renovation in 2011, successfully transforming galleries for the contemporary, American, African, and Asian art collections and greatly improving visitor amenities. We kept the museum open to serve our visitors during this time, but attendance necessarily decreased in 2014 when 60% of the building was closed for the renovation. We certainly anticipate post-renovation attendance will increase.

  3. Thanks for pointing to Ms. Dilenschneider’s research, Laura. We at Createquity published a feature article on this topic earlier this year, which brought us to similar conclusions and an interesting point of further inquiry. The piece,”Why Don’t They Come?” is available at http://createquity.com/2015/05/why-dont-they-come/.

    We found that people with lower incomes and less education (low-SES) participate at lower rates in a range of activities, from museums to sporting events. This is despite the fact that low-SES adults average more free time. Cost is a barrier for some who desire arts experiences, but not as many as we might think. In contrast, the for-profit commercial TV industry is effective at engaging low-SES adults, far more than nonprofit arts organizations. At Createquity we’re working on a follow-up article that digs deeper into why TV seems to be so much more successful at reaching these audiences and whether this is a cause for concern or opportunity. Let us know your ideas and response.

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