Nickles, Dimes, and Tough Times : The Relationship between Visitors, Revenue, and Value

This post is a follow-up on a post last week about the Metropolitan Museum of Art instituting mandatory ticket fees

For many years, I ran a department in a free museum. Perennially patrons would ask for a free parking sticker stamp. If I had been a visitor, I, too, might have asked for this. After all, it is basically just a stamp. This museum was in a town where free parking was pretty common; people bristled at paying money for something they expected to be free. It was then that I had to share with patrons that our department, responsible for the education of the young minds exploring the museum, would be charged. Inevitably, the visitors would apologize, and exclaim their surprise that the department might accrue costs in this manner. In other words, people often don’t know the relationship between the money they spend at a museum and the programs they want to support.

You can’t blame them. Most of our American life is based on a colossal shell game.  In many states, education is funded through housing taxes, meaning that those with bigger houses pay more for the same education as those with small houses. Basically, many of us pay different amounts for the same thing. But, as with the case of my visitors asking for free parking, the nuances of funding are usually poorly understood.

Where does the money go?

Museums are exemplary at many things including obfuscating their processes. Visitors are not to blame for not understanding the cost of a day at the museum. And, the costs can be astronomical. Guards, HVAC, cameras, housekeeping, conservation, education…everything adds up. Rarely does a museum share how much it might cost per hour in a gallery. I assure you that any manager who has priced out opening a gallery for an hour for a private event knows full well the astronomical costs of maintaining a museum. I certainly still shudder at thinking of this cost. And, these are just the costs to run the museum on the daily basis.

Beyond that, museums have had many of the same problems of universities. The salaries of the top layer have grown faster than the amount of money coming in. They have expanded their facilities, incurring capital expenses, and then now have much larger operating incomes. Many of the expansions have resulted in revenue in the form of rentals (Weddings are the fairy godmothers of 21st-century museums). But, they have also increased the cost of upkeep. Think of the extra wear on the floors and of the bathrooms. Or don’t. (After nightmare experiences with duct tape, orange feathers, Bud Light cans, and rentals, I try not to.)

Finally, museums are now competing with everyone for audiences. You can easily stay home for entertainment. Or you can go to see street art for free. You see a public lecture by your favorite paleontologist at your library. You can use VR to see the moon and the stars at home. Educational leisure activities are widely available. As a result, museums have upped the ante, with costly traveling exhibits and events. In other words, museums need to put out money to get more people.

Think of it this way. Museums have more annual visitors that sporting events. I can’t say how much they earn annually in revenue, but I would wager that it is less than the NFL, NBA, and MLB at 28 billion dollars. So at sporting events, they have fewer people who spend more.

What does all this matter? 

Firstly, it means that the museum needs to make up money per visitor from other sources to subsidize the ticket. (See this interesting discussion from the director of the Met).

Donors are often very interested in seeing large visitor numbers. Many foundation reports require attendance numbers, not measures of satisfaction. They want to know that their 20 Million dollar gift towards that dinosaur exhibit was loved by 200,000 visitors. In other words, the museum actually needs visitors to keep coming in order to keep up the subsidy. And, here in the final challenge with this financial game of Twister, visitors will likely avoid the institution if there is no ticket subsidy.

Are Museums Worth it? 

If you imagine a graph of price vs value, in a free museum or a pay as you go, you have donors who are paying vastly more than the person who is entering free. (The orange line). In a mandatory ticket fee museum, basically, you are losing the people who were entering at free. To say this differently, if you charge a fee, you will lose people. Some will be lost if the cost feels onerous. Others will decide that they don’t value the experience enough to pay the base fee. Others will pay the fee and then spend additional money on donations, memberships, and in the store.

The challenge with charging people money is that they start thinking about the experience as a transaction. You will countenance lukewarm lemonade for 50 cents from a child’s corner stand. The great Michelin starred restaurant charging $15 will be kept to different standards.  In the case of the Metropolitan, (and previously at Newfields in Indianapolis and Art Institute of Chicago), people will now expect $25 worth of experience. Visitor experience will need to feel sterling. (I will say that with friends at three institutions I think that they will be able to meet these expectations).

But, this doesn’t actually respond to the issue of the worth of museums. The real challenge for museums is that the field hasn’t demonstrated their value to enough of American society. Attendance numbers continue to go down. We are neither popular nor populist. The ticket fees at the Metropolitan are certainly a challenge, but they are near the end of the wave of museums charging for experiences. In a perfect world, people would pay as much as they could afford to go to the museum. They would understand the value of the museum to their lives. But, how can they when museums aren’t consistently demonstrating their worth and remaining relevant to visitors?

If we as a field want more museums to be free, we need to make more people want them to be free. We need to make people crave museum experiences. Of course, people don’t crave that which they don’t want to consume. People will never fight for museums on a large scale if those spaces feel closed to them.


Truthfully, the whole ticket fee issue is a huge challenge.

  • Ticket fees help museum patrons cover a portion of the costs, like when you ask your child to pay for their own ice cream when you paid for the vacation. They serve as a sign to donors that visitors value the experience. They also allow museums to relieve some of the huge responsibility of raising donations.
  • But, big visitor numbers are needed to raise the donations, and there is a ticket cap at which point attendance decreases. With the scale of the museum market, this cap is often hard to pinpoint.

But, the issue of ticket fees is not about economics. It’s about value. I value the ability to stop by a museum for a short amount of time. I value the way that a free museum can be an extension of my social space. I value my free museum enough to be a member. I value my museum enough to spare precious family time. The depth of value is hard to develop when the ticket fee turns the museum experience into a once a year type of experience.

And, here is the crux of the challenge. We live in a society where a small sector values museums. When we add fees, we decrease the number of people who enter, and therefore we decrease the number of people developing deep bonds with our institutions. After all, it is hard to say if something is worth it, when you can’t afford to see it.


Share the Post:

Related Posts

%d bloggers like this: