Data indicate that free admission has little to no correlation with how well museums – including the Met – welcome or satisfy income-qualified audiences.
Last week, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York announced that it is changing its admission policy such that non-New Yorkers will pay a $25 admission fee starting March 1, 2018. This decision has provoked criticism from many, including art critics, writers, and gatekeepers in the art world who enjoy visiting museums. The primary argument is that charging admission jeopardizes accessibility.
What seems to be lost in this discussion is due consideration of the specious assumption at its core: That free admission actually engages low income audiences.
For those organizations whose financial models depend less on earned revenues (i.e. those with mega endowments or significant public funding), free admission may prove viable. However, for those organizations whose mission delivery depends on their business viability, then the issue of free admission is a far more complex topic. And this may be especially true for the Met as it currently confronts financial challenges.
The issue of free admission tends to be a very emotional topic among those who work for or visit museums. And, while this sentimentality makes emotional sense, it is unfortunate because many tired business practices struggle to remain effective in the cultural industry, and museums – like all types of enterprise – need to evolve to remain both relevant and solvent. Museum executives and the people who love our great cultural institutions deserve to consider data-informed options in order to develop effective strategies to help museums both survive and thrive well into the future. Emotion – instead of facts – too often needlessly muddies this critical conversation. And that’s a shame for all of us.
I’d like to share data for contemplation – free of “shoulds” and emotion. In fact, I’m not going to tackle any “shoulds” in this article. “Museums should all be free.” “Museums should find another way to survive financially.” “The government should fully fund museums” This isn’t to say that they aren’t important for discussion, but for one moment, let’s please put the “shoulds” aside.
Let’s look at this from the angle of, “I love the Met. I want it to survive so that it can educate and inspire as many diverse people as possible. What can museums learn about the role of admission cost in helping them all to achieve this goal?” Certainly, varying perspectives and important considerations inform this broader conversation, but I’m going to stick to the facts regarding only one aspect of this big issue.
I wrote an article called, “How Free Admission Really Affects Museum Attendance,” that shares data on this topic and includes studies and economic papers. Please read that article for more background, and I will be referencing some of that information here as well. For the sake of facilitating intelligent, data-informed conversation about an emotional topic, here are some data-backed findings regarding free admission (and the Met, most specifically).
1) The average household Income of Met visitors is similar to those of other, major NYC art museums that charge admission
IMPACTS collects data concerning 224 visitor-serving organizations in the United States. The chart above shows the average annual household incomes of recent visitors to the Met alongside the average annual household incomes of recent visitors to a collective of three other art museums in New York that charge admission – the Museum of Modern Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, and Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.
The average annual household income of those who visit the Met (which is still “pay what you wish”) is strikingly similar to those of similar institutions that charge admission. This should make folks pause. If the Met were attracting more income-qualified audiences as a function of free admission, then the average household income would be significantly lower for the Met than institutions that charge admission. This isn’t the case.
This isn’t the case because not everybody wants to visit museums – and that’s the first quick assumption that folks make in this discussion. In fact, despite the growing emphasis on inclusion in the industry, museums are still not generally succeeding in reaching underserved audiences – low income or otherwise. In fact, they are better than ever at reaching a certain type of person.
Only 16% of people in the United States have visited any cultural institution in the last two years. (Organizations – and the industry as a whole – still tend to count how many times doors swing open, rather than if they are reaching new people who haven’t been to a cultural entity.) Another 16% of people are “inactive, likely visitors” who have not visited an entity in the last two years, but who have the demographic, psychographic, and behavioral attributes to suggest that they would visit with proper motivation. 38% of people in the United States are unlikely visitors, and 30% just don’t want to go to cultural organizations at all.
The argument that paid admission may stop these folks from coming dismisses an important reality: Regardless of the price of admission – or the lack thereof – many people don’t go in the first place!
“Pay what you want” policies are not resulting in more income-qualified audiences visiting the Met than similar institutions that charge admission. And this is frequently the case with many free institutions. The entities that are successful at reaching more income-qualified audiences tend to be those who make inclusion a core part of their engagement strategy and fund specific initiatives that underscore that strategy.
But prerequisite to effectively integrating strategies around inclusion are access to reliable funds to make sure that they are actually effective. Within the cultural industry, most still are not.
In sum, admission cost is not an affordable access program, and welcoming income qualified audiences is a completely different strategy.
2) Value perceptions are likely to be unaffected
The chart above shows value for cost perceptions to the Met, Whitney, MoMA, and Guggenheim organized by New York state residents, Connecticut and New Jersey residents, and folks visiting from other US states. Value for cost is a measure of how much value visitors derived from the experience relative to the cost of admission that they paid. Essentially, it shows how well they feel they got “bang for their buck.”
The Met has similar value for cost perceptions as the entities that charge admission – and the Met is still “pay what you wish!” (There is also some pricing psychology that manifests itself in this data, which I will address in the next point.)
Locals are most cost sensitive, which also makes charging admission for those outside of New York make sense. And this isn’t only true for New Yorkers. Local audiences generally have negatively skewed perspectives of the organizations that are nearest to them. Compared even to regional visitors to cultural organizations, locals have 14% lower value-for-cost perceptions (despite paying 20% less in admission, on average, due to local discounts), and have 11% lower visitor satisfaction levels.
There’s a bigger opportunity at the heart of this issue: Cultural organizations on the whole may have “trained” local audiences to feel entitled to certain privileges, and we see that in their perceptions of cultural organizations. Combined with the fact that people value what they pay for, and folks tend to believe that “if something’s so great, it probably isn’t in my backyard,” cultural organizations may have gotten themselves into a bit of a pickle on this front.
3) People value what they pay for – including admission to the Metropolitan Museum of Art
People who take advantage of free admission at the Met report lower overall satisfaction than those who pay an admission fee. And this isn’t just the Met. This finding stands in aggregated cultural industry data as well.
“But people who paid nothing probably couldn’t afford to pay more.” This likely isn’t universally true for the Met. As we’ve covered, visitors to the Met are of the same average household income as those who visit art museums in New York that charge admission. Everybody has the option to pay nothing when visiting the Met.
“People value what they pay for.” It’s a popular cornerstone of pricing psychology, and it’s a reality that we in the cultural industry often gloss over…despite the fact that it may help us to run more sustainable, relevant, and thriving institutions when funding does not come from elsewhere.
And, alternatively, people don’t ascribe as much value to things that they do NOT pay for. I shared this data in my last article on this topic and it’s worth showing again. This data is pulled from a representative sample of the US population through the National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage Study and shows intent to visit organizations, lumped by their admission price.
Free admission does increase visitation…by those who already go to cultural organizations. That makes free admission a possible win for the pure number of times the door swings open, but a loss for membership and donor support cultivation.
In fact, admission cost is not a primary barrier to visitation for likely visitors to cultural organizations. While this is made clear time and time again when reviewing barrier to visitation data (as well many precedent studies and economic research), this persistent myth may come from a lack of understanding that among visitors and non-visitors alike, time is more important than money. There seems to be a preoccupation with being worthy of a person’s money. It may be more beneficial to first strive to be perceived as worthy of a potential attendee’s time and attention.
What if the Met utilized reliable revenue from admissions to establish programs that more effectively engaged income-qualified persons?
Wouldn’t that mean that this admission price might enable the development and implementation of access opportunities, rather than the demise of them? As we’ve covered, admission pricing is not an access program for most visitor-serving organizations, and it’s not for the Met.
Being free is not the same as being welcoming. Those organizations that successfully welcome income-qualified audiences are those that invest in strategies to do so and integrate inclusion into their core culture and operations. Simply opening their doors is not enough, and that’s a key reason why free days at cultural organizations often attract audiences with higher household incomes than full-admission days. “Free” isn’t a cure-all for museums. In fact, it often comes at a cost.
A reminder: Data suggest that cultural organizations need to reach new audiences in order to survive. But the audiences we need to reach are not necessarily income-qualified. Reaching income-qualified audiences is not a business imperative, but a mission imperative. This doesn’t mean that attracting income qualified audiences is unimportant or even less important – but in order to actually do this, funds need to come from somewhere. When the industry talks about reaching new audiences in order to sustain itself, we’re talking about engaging millennials and those of different racial and ethnic backgrounds and cultivating them as regular attendees – and this is a business imperative. Again, this is a different conversation than welcoming income-qualified folks.
These data simply scratch the surface of this controversial debate. Again, please read this article for outside sources, some examples, and more data. We have too much to lose not to move forward in the most fully informed manner possible. If we want to keep museums alive, we need to think about engagement, audience motivations and barriers, and actual economics.
Daniel Weiss, the Met’s President and CEO said, “Nobody was happy with the announcement because it isn’t that kind of announcement – but the policy has effectively failed and therefore, needs to change.”
I take back my stance on not using “shoulds.”
If we love museums – and if we love the Met – perhaps we should support the admission charge…so that the Met can survive long into the future for our children, and regain the financial footing to lead the charge in creating access opportunities for income-qualified audiences that actually work.