How do you do Community Engagement

Community Engagement is a commitment. Often organizations need to go through stages to improve their engagement with patrons. At the lowest level of engagement, organizations want to include people in their existing programs without changes. At the highest level of engagement, the organization is willing to make changes and as a result their community changes. A small example of a coevolution might be when procedural changes, like waiving rental fees, are put in place to run a community-originated program.

Most organization’s work in community engagement between “consult” and “collaborate.” Each subsequent level of engagement requires increasing amounts of trust, truth, and time.

Organizations need to give a little and learn a lot in order to do community engagement well. In non-profit, particularly museums, while the stakes feel high, the outside world rarely understand our norms. Many of the concessions to connect to the community and increase involvement do not change us at the core. They require listening and improving; they do not require changing who we are.

Community engagement is a good relationship, like a long marriage/ partnership when you lose track of the small changes each partner has made.  But, like all relationships, engagement needs to start with an honest, truthful commitment. Then, museums need to follow through.  (Museums have more need for this relationship, so they must model follow through. If they do, communities eventually will.) If museums do, they can expand and improve your work, eventually finding that the museum and the community have both been inextricably improved by this faithful communion.

(Online Course) Self-Care For Mission-Driven Professionals

Mission-driven professionals are not in it for the money. They place their desire to fulfill the mission over themselves. Doing mission-driven work can be gratifying. But, this work is also incredibly draining. The rewards can be minimal both emotionally and financially. With these challenges, the mission-driven professional finds themselves feeling empty and exhausted.

Self-care is taking care of yourself. While so much of the media frames self-care as a privilege and an act of consumerism, self-care is about finding ways to keep yourself sane. Self-care can be as simple as taking a deep breath.

Understanding yourself is the key to doing authentic self-care. You cannot keep yourself sane if you don’t understand the things that make you crazy. For the mission-driven person, their work and their motivations for doing that work are integral to their construct of self.

This online course helps mission-driven professionals understand their work and personal issues, develop new strategies to fold self-care into their lives, and maintain their routines long-term. This course includes videos and activities to help you be your best you.

What is Community Engagement?

Capital, Collections, Cultural Capital and Infrastructure are what museums can offer.
Facets of Community Engagement

Community Engagement is one of those terms that is tossed around in museums but can become encrusted with coded meaning. Often museums use the word community engagement to mean bringing in low-income people, with “community” being a coded term for underprivileged people. Sometimes community engagement might be used as the term for bringing in new audiences. Or, in an ideal situation, community engagement is a term for connecting people to your organization.

Not too long ago, I was thinking about the possible types of experiences that could be part of community engagement (see my handwritten notes above)  Often organizations focus on how they can bring people in their doors, usually with programs.

Yet, a rounded community engagement program should strategically consider the myriad facets of interaction. Museums have collections as well as space, money, soft power.  People’s draw to the museum might not be the collection, at least at first. This is a controversial thought, I realize.  Community engagement, however, needs to be about inviting people into the museum community rather than demanding people use the museum the “right way”.

A huge portion of community engagement should be about sharing. Museums have many resources they can share beyond their programs. Also, there are times when what they have to offer is space, both physical and emotional.  A well-rounded community engagement portfolio should balance multiple elements of the facets of community engagement, ideally developed iteratively and collaboratively with patrons.

Thinking about Value: Universal Rights of Humanity & Free Arts/ Culture

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed in 1948 explicitly calls out the importance of arts and culture. Article 27 states “Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.” This estimable document includes a number of essential rights, like the right to life and work. Amongst those foundational needs, everyone has the right to knowledge and culture.


The importance of intellectual and cultural pursuits might be seen as a right by the United Nations but are often unfunded mandates in many countries. In the US,  arts and culture funding generally combines private and public funding like a complicated crazy-quilt. A patron at a library, theater, and/ or museum would be hard-pressed to perceive the sources of money that keep the lights on and the culture coming.  Arts and culture seem to just be there.

The opacity of funding can be a sincere challenge in building ownership in patrons as well as maintain sustainability. Patrons need to understand costs if they are being asked to help pitch in. National Public Radio (NPR) offers a useful model of articulating the actual cost of services. During funding drives, most stations delineate the costs and then remind listeners of their responsibility to pay for what could be free. Breaking down costs concretizes services that otherwise seem ephemeral.

Museums and arts organizations, like NPR, are often available on the user’s timeline. Rather than a theater performance, you can go to the museum during open hours.  You might choose to spend the full day in the galleries or walk out in ten minutes. At the symphony, you would be ejected by polite red-coated volunteers if you tried to stay the day and judged, equally politely, if you walked out in ten minutes.  While this self-determined timeline can be positive for visitors, it can also have ramifications for the perception of value. One museum professional shared that they felt that, “People see us as the friend who is always there for you when you don’t have plans, and this is also the friend that you don’t really pay attention to.”

Visitors often do not understand the true costs of running arts or cultural organizations. Museums and arts organizations support their funding mostly through large donors, who basically subsidize the low-cost or free entrance. So, the visitors are merrily ignorant of the hard work the development staff engages in daily. They see the benefits of this labor as a given.  Alternately, many performing arts organizations have a different model. Patrons pay fees for tickets. These fees do not completely cover the operating costs. But, patrons understand that there is a cost associated that that cultural experience.  The distributed funding model in performing arts exposes the funding needs to a broader sector of their community.

Patrons will not innately understand costs. The onus is on the organizations to make this clear to their broad audience. Many of the costs of this work are different than the costs in other fields. Most office buildings have framed posters on the wall. Not all visitors will understand why the cost of framing and hanging an artwork on a museum wall is exponentially higher. An arts-professional shared the importance of expressing funding needs…”CHRISTINA”



Value has a complicated relationship with cost. For example, if the value is seen to be less than the cost, the patron will likely be deterred or disgruntled. If the value is perceived to be more than the cost, the person will be thrilled to make the payment.  But value is not just about getting a steal.  Value can grow over time. Repeated contact can be necessary to really appreciate some costs. Gym membership, for example, is a cost that you might need a few months to truly appreciate.

Arts and culture also have a perception problem. These pursuits are seen as being appreciated by a rarified audience. Certain skills are seen as necessary to “get it.” They have to be “your thing.”  And, if they aren’t your thing, you won’t find enjoyment. A recent British study articulated this issue:

Onboarding is, therefore, a major problem for the field. Entry programs, often through schools, can help people gain an appreciation of arts and culture. However, if these programs are not valued in their family, students often do not grow to value arts and culture in the long term. Families often preference other leisure pursuits, even if those have costs, unlike the free arts and culture. All is not lost, of course. Arts and culture appreciation can grow in young adulthood, often through friends. However, young adulthood is a time of high student loans and low disposable income. So, young adults might not experience arts and culture enough to build a sustained habit.

Free programs, therefore, can be a way to build broad audiences. As one cultural professional said “[without free programs], I think our audience would be even more middle-aged and middle-class than it is, and I don’t know that it would have the chance to diversify, both in those terms and in others.” Free programs are the easiest way to break down a tangible access barrier. Free allows anyone and everyone to enjoy the benefits of arts and culture.

Arts and culture are also often best enjoyed collectively. A live reading of a poetry is different than listening to an audiobook at home. Live theater allows patrons to connect not only to the story but also to the energy of being in a room full of like-minded individuals. When a social group goes to an exhibition, they can learn and explore together. Arts and culture are also cost-effective when experienced collectively. The cost of mounting an opera is exorbitant, and so sharing those costs are the only way that such experiences can exist. Real Rembrandts, and frankly many fake Rembrandts, are too costly for most people to own. Most people’s chance to experience high-quality art is in art museums.  As, the power of experiencing arts and culture, though, is not universally obvious, free opportunities allow people to tap into these experiences of collective learning with authentic arts and culture.

Free also has a number of problems, however. As mentioned above, free means costs must be raised in other ways. Also, as mentioned above, free means people do not understand the true costs, and so they cannot determine the true value. Therefore, for some organizations free becomes a different type of barrier. As a professional at a free museum shared, “People just assume that they can come when they want, and so they never come and go to the things that they pay for. No one wants to lose money.”

Value and cost, therefore, have a convoluted relationship. These organizations are seen as exclusive.  Charged fees support the perception of exclusion. The real costs of running these types of organizations are often invisible to users. However, most people do not place enough value on these resources to pay even a portion of the cost. After all, even when available free, these arts and culture amenities are often eschewed for costlier options. When free programs are valued, patrons grow a deep appreciation and donate funds.


The rights to art and culture are one that is not universally appreciated. There is no single way to run arts and culture nonprofits to help patrons understand their value. Broad social appreciation of these fields is required to sustain audiences. Costs can be an access barrier, certainly, however, fees can also signal value to patrons. Availability can be a way to grow engagement or a means of building engagement.

However, the salient issue here is about perceived value. In order to maintain the arts and cultural sector, writ large, the social value has to be clear to potential patrons.  These programs have to appeal to patrons (rather than organizations). In other words, the arts and cultural sector cannot expect to draw new patrons (or even existing patrons) by maintaining the status quo. They need to find better ways to express their value to their local community while also working nationally as advocates.


Connecting Experience and Research

Research is the fuel in the engine of the museum’s output. Like a car, which is basically inert without a driver, the museum only fulfills its full mission when drawing visitors. Visitors are now a scarce commodity. Drawing more visitors requires considering our offerings and the way those offerings come to fruition. This does mean going all the way to the sources, including research. We need to be thoughtful about how we do research, who does research, and which research is prioritized. All those choices will eventually determine which visitors we draw. When we place research outside the realm of bias and inclusion conversations, we are putting bad fuel in our engines.


Centering visitors takes work. Museums often start with objects then come up with ideas for installations and exhibition, then turn to thinking about visitors while producing the outputs of that research, like in the diagram below. The challenge is that when you do your research that not centered on your visitor. Now, this is in some ways a challenging proposition. Research is an unwieldy process.  Anyone who has done research understands the sort of free-flow, errant paths that you must travel and the secret travails you must brook. Centering your visitor in your research means simply as you look at your work remember you are doing this for someone–not just yourself or your museum. Use that as a guiding idea throughout your work (as seen above). Just as a writer knows that someday someone will read these words (please read these words :>), a museum researcher should hope that their work will be consumed by someone. In other words, keep that goal in mind throughout your research.

Interpretation : Focus on Tactile and Kinesthetics

In museum galleries, we signal ideas through a variety of ways. Collections are visible in the galleries. Interpretation adds more signals, like ancillary images, audiotours, and of course text. But, we also omit many stimuli. We often completely exclude two major forms of meaning-making, kinesthetic and tactile. What happens when we do this? And, what are ways that we can foster these senses?




Every moment of the day, awake or not, we make take in sensory information and make sense of the world. Some stimula are fairly direct. We smell a musty odor and match that to a memory of skunk smells. Other times, we receive information that has been translated by an individual (like you are reading about skunk smell now).

Most objects in museums are translations of phenomena. Fossils were once a living, breathing creature. Artworks might relate a concept, idea, or experience.  Look at the example above. An artist has created an image of a cat. Now, in understanding that object, you can use your senses. In museums, you will most likely not be able to touch it. You could listen to an audiotour, but you couldn’t be able to hear the sounds of striking it (ping) or dropping it (crash). Most likely you will need to use vision as your primary sense, either through looking at the object or reading the text (a translation of the object into text that the reader must interpret.)




In other words, in the vast majority of museum settings, visitors must rely on the mediation of the museum interpretation. They need to use visual sense as the primary source whereas in the rest of the world they use many more sources of information.

Humans have a distinct haptic system, where they use touch to reflexively seek and acquire information, even more quickly than with the sense of sight.  Many types of information are most easily ascertained through touch like hardness, temperature, pliability, weight. These topics can be learned through verbal communication, yet they are more easily ascertained if you just reach out your hand. People often act on this need to understand through touch before their rational senses take hold.

Touch can evoke memories but also quickly immerse people in new experiences.Touch is a type of learning that is often fostered in early childhood. Engaging in learning through touch is pleasurable.




Touch is not the only sense that people lose in the museum. Spatial and kinesthetic sensibilities are often challenging. Works are seen out of context. While the fossils of some dinosaurs are seen in its full forms, many bones might be framed in a case. Because of that, you can’t walk around the whole creature. You can’t understand your relative scale to this animal, for example.

Kinesthetic experiences allow learners to connect actions to ideas to develop deeper understandings of concepts and developing critical thinking efficiently. This connection of body and mind is called embodied learning, in which abstract ideas are made more salient when connected to concrete physical action. While kinesthetic learning is so important for meaning-making, this form of engagement is underrepresented throughout the educational ecosystem.

Kinesthetic learning has some important ancillary benefits. Experiences that foster learning through actions usually have a flexibility that encourages creativity, experimentation and problem-solving.  The sheer act of moving put learners in a position to see spaces and objects from a new perspective. In museums, ideally, kinesthetic learning should feel authentic and meaningful. And, kinesthetic learning also encourages collaborative action.



Streamlining to visual senses have major problems for visitors. Spatial and tactile learning can certainly help those with hearing and sight impairments, but these types of experiences empower everyone making collections more memorable for all. Together these senses can evoke emotions and encourage fascination.

The challenge for museums is that touch and kinesthetic action are natural ways that humans make meaning. The sense of touch is the easiest way to ascertain authenticity, for example. People are well aware when an experience feels inauthentic.  Museums need to be thoughtful, therefore, in the experiences they produce, for example, using high-quality replicas. When chosen appropriately, handling replicas or other materials can stimulate engagement.

Touch does not mean to wildly grab collections. Museums need to help visitors learn appropriate handling behaviors. Ideally, touch can be added into museum spaces without unleashing an avalanche of destruction. Reality-based interactions on tablets can offer some of the benefits as touching objects. While more research needs to be done, virtual touch does seem to be a real option.

What Museums Can Learn from the Black Panther

The stars of Black Panther including Zuri in purple carrying an impressive blade (Marvel’s Black Panther, 2018)

Taken from the Marvel Comic Books, the Black Panther is a movie about a fictional African nation that cloaks its advanced civilization as a form of self-preservation. The king of the nation has superhuman strength thanks to serious sumptuary success. The Black Panther’s trail to bring a bad guy to justice starts some even worse experiences for him and his nation.

1. Great story with POC doesn’t have to be about color
While the Black Panther mentions slavery, colonialism, appropriation, and the art market, they are in support of a great story. Certainly, the many challenges in the history of the African diaspora are worthy of exploring in film, as well as literature and exhibitions. But, people of color are not just the sum of the worst of their history. Black Panther told a great hero story, using all the elements of the character’s history, good and bad. But, this is a really an adventure romp.

In other words, don’t essentialize POC’s experiences in exhibitions or programming. Appeal to the whole people if you want their whole participation.

2. Market for Success
Disney put real money into the marketing, and their investment was returned by being the fifth biggest box office opening domestically.

Museums often split up their marketing with the smallest part going to education programs and diversity programs. And, then people don’t come. If these people are the hardest to get, you probably need to try the hardest to get them into your doors.

3. Synergy Sells
The Black Panther will be in the upcoming Infinity War, apparently. Most Black Panther audiences know this because the ad ran before the movie this weekend. Every person who liked this movie saw that. Some portion might even attend that movie as a result. That said, not every person in the theaters this weekend is a Marvel fan. Many came out to support a Black-led and performed film. But, the synergy is a classic Hollywood trick. Snag extra audiences by pushing products in existing audiences.

Museums often sell hard to a sector of an audience for specific exhibitions, like African-American audiences for an exhibition of Kerry James Marshall or young boys for an exhibition of Dinosaurs. That is good marketing sense. But, most museums can do better about cross-promotion. Look for ways that you might find connections to other parts of your collection. Offer them some connected ways to maintain a relationship with your organization’s collection. The Marshall attendees might love figurative painting. The Dinosaur boys might like whales. To find the best synergies think broadly, don’t essentialize people, and consider doing some evaluations of audiences about other interests.

4. Don’t Shy Away from the Hard Stuff
There is one scene in a museum where a woman (curator, marketing manager?) is standing in a gallery (with coffee!) nearly apoplectic when being accused of cultural piracy/ theft of artifacts. There are many tougher issues about race that are brought up in this movie, though woven into the narrative. I remind you that this is a Disney blockbuster movie being advertised during the Olympics.

Controversial issue and blockbusters don’t need to be in opposition. In fact, if you avoid controversial issues, you might find that you have alienated audiences making for a far-from-successful blockbuster.

5. Celebrate rather than Blind Yourself to Color
Disney worked to create a film within the Marvel universe that worked for the audience, and then made sure people knew what they were getting. It’s right in the name, “Black Panther”. This was not the African-American panther (not to mention he is meant to be from Africa). This story was pretty honest about race, but also matter of fact. From the advertising alone, no one thought that they were going to be seeing one or two black faces. But, at the same time, it was not just about race. You didn’t forget their color but you let the Black Panther, his enemies, his friends, and everyone else in Wakanda be their whole selves.

Museums in general still make the mistake of essentializing people of color, particularly black/ African-American people. Coded language flourishes in museums and museum culture. The word “diversity” in most museums means, not variation as it should, but instead moves to include black people or people of color in the museum ecosystem. This is a terribly bad way to grow audiences. You are basically inviting people in to change your demographic but not changing for them. What happens, then, is that you don’t have true change in museum demographics.

Black Panther showed that people of color will respond to quality entertainment that is more than about race as long as it doesn’t shy away from Race. Also, this was not a sneaky move to create a movie that had an almost all-black cast. This was all-out, right-on Black made and performed.

Museums can learn bringing people in, different people than you have now, requires real effort, real money, and a truthful product. After all, if you aren’t planning to go big, people will just stay home. Don’t believe me, ask the people who didn’t stay home this weekend.

And if you were here for the art, here are 12 artworks from cultures that inspired the Black Panther designers.

The Future of the Art Museum: The Alternative Possibilities


I was struck by this response to a previous post of mine. I wasn’t the only one. It had 40 likes and 18 retweets.

In many ways, art museums greatest strengths can be their failures. Art museums do quiet, meditative, restrained, and grown-up really well. These are good things for the people who already go to art museums. After all, those people like those things enough to go.

Why is attendance going down? 

Yet, museum attendance is going down.  Why? I’ll give you my take.  First, that core demographic (middle-aged women) is aging. And, those people aging into middle-age are finding other things to do. In other words, visitors are becoming a finite commodity. Unlike in previous generations, when there were fewer things to do, museums now have still competition to convert new patrons.

Notice how I didn’t say that art museums do art well. Art museums often prioritize themselves over their visitors. I love museums and even I sometimes feel like visiting the morgue might be a more jolly afternoon than some exhibitions. Sometimes I read the curatorial listings in the paper and wonder if the museums are playing a colossal game of stump the chump. And, then as if they have Jekyll and Hyde syndrome, those same institutions evoke the blockbuster card with the most stereotypical, saccharine, middle-age-lady-baiting exhibition that they can. What about the happy medium, friends? Sometimes you do that well, but only sometimes. Make this the given, instead of the occasional, and museums would automatically do better with attendance.

Art museums have also suffered for their stability. They have vast, expensive collections. They have authenticity in the hole. And, so, they have felt like they can focus on that and slack on the visitor experience. The truth is that the idea of authenticity has expanded. Who has read a book on Kindle and felt as if they didn’t read the REAL book? There is certainly the core audience who is amazed by a real Tanguy. But, there a bigger group of people who don’t care what That Guy’s real painting is. Museums can’t eschew focusing on experience. They don’t get a free pass for being repositories of the world’s history.

Museums aren’t changing fast enough. The world has changed pretty quickly in most people’s lifetimes. Other than those born after 2007, most humans remember a time before cell phones. Fast change is our normal. So, when museums tout changes that feel glacial, they show how incredibly out of step they are.

How can they stem the tide? 

Truthfully, monumental changes are needed. First, and foremost, culturally art museums have to accept that the status quo will not work. If art museums continue as they are, the audience decline will be precipitous.


Now, I will say that some museums are making changes and putting in certain efforts. A recent Ford Foundation grant, for example, funded some wonderful projects. Many of those efforts are focused on curatorial practices. That is a good start, on some level, as collection work is a core competency of museums. Curators have concentrated power in museums. In some ways, projects targeted at collection acquisition are focused on improving the means of production. Future collections will be less uniform, ideally, with these efforts.


But, those efforts might fall flat if they are not paired with many other changes. If you use the production model, even if the means of production improves, the company can still go under. Currently, museums run on a model of inequity, with portions of their staff working for considerably less than others. While in the short-term this model is fine, in the long-term this is inefficient for the field. Right now, the glut of young potential employees is high. Eventually, it will slow and then the cheap labor model will stop working.

Even if you aren’t worried about long-term sustainability, the museum staffing model is bad for visitors. Underpaid staff is not going to do their best no matter how much they love the art.



Collection work will help museums maintain current audiences. Improving workplace equity will help them have a stable workforce, and therefore save money on retraining. This will allow them to increase time and money spent on visitor experience. Improving how people feel at the museum is the only way to increase audiences. To go back to the tweet I started with, people need to feel like the museum is enjoyable. They need to feel like you want them there as they are, not as you want them to be. In order to do this, the practice needs to align with the visitor’s needs (rather than the museums.) Without a concerted effort on making museums about visitors, we will eventually be without visitors.

Inequity in The Arts & Culture Economy Equation


The arts and culture present some serious funding challenges for society and represent some serious inequities.


  • The top of the pyramids, like the directors of museums or the owners of galleries, make much more money than those starting out.
  • Many people cannot afford to work in the arts because of the low salaries.
  • Therefore, arts and culture often draw from upper middle class and upper-class sectors for staffing.


  • Donors give more money than the average customer.
  • However, donors and other upper middle class/ upper-class disproportionately consume the arts.
  • Arts and Culture are often too expensive for the middle class and lower middle class.
  • Institutions serve more people than they employ, meaning that while there isn’t large “profit, there is increased engagement.

So what? Well, it means that when arts and culture have inequity in their means of production, the public will question our costs. Art, for example, is a commodity. People know that works can cost millions of dollar. When museums suggest they need money to support their operations, this doesn’t compute.

Arts and culture are extremely costly to produce. Think of all of the people who need to paint sets for Broadway show, and this is not work that can be automated. And, while people might enjoy that show, they can’t see how the cost of painting that set goes into the ticket fee. They just see that they will be spending $200 of their hard earned money for a 2-hour show, for example. You don’t realize that your ticket is not even close to covering that set painter; the corporate donations are part of this. Obscuring the cost of production means that consumers don’t understand the importance of their contributions.

The inequity on the production side also has major problems. Arts and culture of all kinds have expanded drastically. The required contribution from consumers has increased to cover these costs.  But, finally, the perceived value of these experiences has not necessarily increased. There is more and more competition for the same consumers, just as they are less likely to go to events. In other words, organizations now cost more while often getting fewer consumers.  Arts and Culture need to make more to cover their higher costs but people are not necessarily more likely to spend it. Finally, the opt-in fee to start using arts and culture prices out people, meaning that a whole generation of potential future clients might miss out.

The inequities in our funding of arts and culture can have massive ramifications on the number of future consumers potentially rotting the future of the sector.

This post follows up a post about the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new mandatory ticket fees: Nickles, Dimes, and Tough Times : The Relationship between Visitors, Revenue, and Value

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.