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Mission, Money, and Museums

August 14, 2015

By: Kevin Valbonesi

The following blog post contains excerpts from an article by Gail Lord and Ted Silberberg, Balancing Money and Mission: Critical Issues in Museum Economics.

Should museums charge an admission fee? This question is the cause of frequent debate for the cultural sector and the opinions on both sides are strong. Early in their piece, Lord and Silberberg quote Elaine Heumann Gurian, showing how this question gets at the heart of what museums stand for.

Gurian writes that museums “cannot argue that they hold the patrimony of all if only some can afford to seem them.” She continues, ” There is a fundamental disconnect between the mission statements we write and the act of imposing an entry fee” (Gurian 2005, 33).

How can museums balance their mission to make art and culture available to all while generating the revenue they need to fund that mission? This is a question Lord and Silberberg explore in the article. They look at the issue from all sides, examining successes, failures, and deeper issues. One point they make: there is no a one-size-fits-all solution.

Simply slashing ticket prices does not work. A museum needs a strategy in place to capitalize on the flood of visitors that are predicted to show up when cost is no longer a barrier. Looking at frequent free admission museums in the UK and a relatively recent move to free admission by museums in the People’s Republic of China, Lord and Silberberg can compare how this strategy works in different cultures and economic systems.

The UK is not the only country to boost museum attendance through free admission. Although previous admission prices had been modest by western standards, the People’s Republic of China introduced free admission to over 1800 museums in 2009. The result was that attendance levels increased on average by 50 percent to include visitors who had not previously attended (Xinhua English News 2012)

As in the UK, the free admission policy in the PRC was accompanied by a massive program of building new museums and improving existing ones (Varutti 2014).

With more good options available to them, more visitors are likely to show up. That is a sound strategy. One might say that this is just more people paying nothing, but Lord and Silberberg show that there are other opportunities to earn revenue.

Free entry has a positive effect on other earned income through more spending for charged major exhibitions, retail, food, public programs, and entrepreneurial revenue centers such as pay‐for photo/video opportunities. With admissions revenue generally accounting for only 10–15 percent of total operating income for charged admission museums, and sometimes less, a common argument is that larger numbers of visitors drawn to a museum as a result of free admission will lead to more income from these other revenue centers. Tate Modern and Tate Britain have consistently maintained free admission and earn a remarkable 50 percent of their revenue from charged special exhibitions, retail operations, rentals, and other earned income (Tate Report 2011–2012, 68–69).

Another important part of the argument for free admission is the need to give people in lower education and income categories the same access to these institutions as everyone else –the current thought being that they will be less likely to visit if they have pay. However, as Lord and Silberberg point out, free admission may not have the broadening effect that many hope for. They look at France, where a trial program of free admission to museums for six months met with mixed results. More people came, but the percentage of those they really wanted to attract was lower than expected.

The goal of the Ministry of Culture and Communication was to increase this to 22 percent through free admission. Although there was an increase in the total number of young people, the increase in attendance among adults meant that the percentage of young people overall actually declined to about 16 percent.

If being free to all does not necessarily achieve the desired results, then another method may be offering selective free admission, targeting those who are less likely to come on their own or those who require assistance to come.

For example, art museums, which often face challenges in attracting children, use free admission to encourage parents to bring their children. Other museums offer free admission to children and school groups, which is often an effective strategy for attracting corporate or other sponsorships. Among museums that charge, it is common to offer free admission days or evenings, whether once per week or month. At the Museo de Oro in Bogota, Columbia there is free admission every Sunday, and free admission all the time for children aged 12 and under, and seniors aged 60 and older.

Many museums also offer free periods, for select groups or for all. But here, there are concerns about what may happen if savvy visitors take advantage of these free admissions times and avoid attending on days with fees.

An alternative view is that free admission periods should be discouraged as they cause people who can afford to pay to wait for the free admission times.

Rather than deal with concerns over how to stay free and accessible to as many as possible, there are others who believe that a fee is not only necessary, but that charging more than others expect may be the right way to go.

It appears that some museums have been eliminating admission charges altogether or else reducing them substantially, while others have been increasing charges to boost earned income during times of reduced government and private support. Increased charges are also intended to convey the substantial cultural value of what the museum offers to visitors, such as rare collections and spectacular architecture. In 2006, when the Museum of Modern Art in New York (which receives no government support) introduced a $20 admission charge, it caused a major stir, but many others soon followed.

At first, the strategy might seem counter intuitive. Charging more for any product narrows the potential number of customers and possibly revenue. However, a higher price does mean each admission is worth more, and that has benefits beyond the obvious.

Substantially higher admission charges generally result in lower attendance levels but higher revenue per visitor, and it also tends to increase the value of membership. Moreover, higher admission charges may help to demonstrate to private and government funders that a museum is doing all it can to boost earned income levels.

Clearly, both sides of this argument have strong cases to make. As with any critical decision, it is important for this one to be made with regards to a museum’s own circumstances. While some museums in the UK are free and some famous museums in the US are raising prices, they are doing so because their situation and resources allow them to. Making a blanket statement about whether or not to charge an admission fee is about as helpful as saying that all museums or all art galleries are the same. Silberberg and Lord support a case-by-case approach to this difficult question, citing:

“With respect to specific admission charges, every museum is different and the key for each is to find the right balance that takes into account the nature and quality of the visitor experience, the size of the space and length of stay in the museum, admission charges at other museums in the community, and admission charges of the same museum type elsewhere” (Frey and Steiner 2010).

For a more in-depth treatment of this issue, you can read the full article by Gail Lord and Ted Silberberg in Museum Practice – one part of the multi-volume series The International Handbooks of Museum Studies.

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Kevin Valbonesi

About The Author

Kevin Valbonesi is a media specialist with a sweet spot for museums and art galleries. As Communications Coordinator for Lord Cultural Resources, Kevin keeps his finger on the cultural sector’s pulse and highlights the brilliant work being done at Lord.

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