Compared to museums with a paid admission basis, free museums (still) generally do not have higher onsite satisfaction, more willing endorsers, nor are they perceived as more welcoming.
It’s time for a data update!
Audience engagement for free vs. paid admission museums is a cut-and-dry data and economics conversation, but it’s arguably the most emotionally fraught topic that we share on this website. Although research helps remove guesswork and allows leaders to make strategic decisions based more on facts than feelings, leaders also tend to have strong feelings about their feelings. (It’s human.)
As we often say at IMPACTS, “Being data informed means getting comfortable being uncomfortable.” And, as we’ve also often said, perhaps no topic in the museum industry is more fact-ignored and feelings-founded than the topic of free admission.
Let’s get uncomfortable together, folks.
We published quite a bit about the actual demographics visiting free vs. paid museums in the United States before the pandemic. Regular readers (and behavioral economists) are likely well aware that free admission museums did not generally welcome lower income, younger, or more racially diverse visitors when compared to paid admission organizations. Beyond demographics, people have greater intentions to visit paid admission museums, cultural organizations are generally believed to be worthy of their price points, people find free museums to be less satisfying, and many free organizations just get the same people to come back more often.
Here’s a quick look at where things stood before the pandemic:
But could the pandemic and current economic concerns have altered these findings?
Many aspects of audience engagement shifted during the pandemic. And leaders may be wondering if key tenets of pricing psychology have been impacted by heightened attention to diversity, equity, and/or inclusion initiatives. We also know people are currently concerned about the economy, though we aren’t seeing that admission prices are a primary factor.
Have these conditions changed the trends?
Spoiler alert: It won’t come as a surprise to any readers with knowledge of the fundamentals of behavioral economics or pricing psychology that the findings have proven largely durable.
IMPACTS Experience is in market tracking visitors, behaviors, and perceptions related to 224 visitor-serving organizations in the US. We track these data for a range of organizations, including both free and paid organizations of each respective entity type. While we measure free vs. paid admission organization audiences and perceptions on multiple levels, today we’re going to focus on four specific criteria: Onsite satisfaction, willingness to endorse/recommend, welcoming perceptions, and audience diversity. The data in the charts below is cut for the end of the third quarter of 2022 (October 1st) and contemplates 81 exhibit-based organizations for which we actively track metrics related to these select criteria. These organizations are US-based, with varying types and sizes in both the free and paid admission categories.
Let’s dive in.
Free admission organizations do not have higher satisfaction rates.
Famed economist Milton Friedman said, “People value what they pay for and will pay for what they value.” It is wholly unsurprising that the research for museum visitors similarly affirms this observation in terms of people valuing that for which they invest. Satisfaction is generally lower for free vs. paid admission organizations, and this still holds true through the third quarter of 2022.
In the charts shown in scalar variables such as the one below, a change in even one point is statistically significant.
People are not more likely to recommend free admission organizations.
There is not a significant difference between one’s willingness to endorse a free organization vs. a paid admission organization. This may surprise some folks who forget that people generally value time over money. Being free in and of itself is not often a reason to endorse an organization unless it first qualifies as being worthy of someone’s time.
Free admission museums are not seen as more welcoming.
Here’s where things can get messy and emotional: People generally do not believe that free organizations in the US are more welcoming than paid-admission organizations.
As you can see, being free is not the same as being welcoming. Simply putting a “free” sign on your door doesn’t generally bring in a steady stream of folks who are desperate to come in, but could not afford it (though it does encourage the same people to come back more often) Often, the things keeping audiences from free museums are the same barriers that keep audiences from paid admission museums because people who are interested in visiting museums are interested in visiting museums. On the whole, free and paid admission museums have the same audience and audience profile.
Removing admission does not by itself alleviate perceptual cultural or experiential barriers. If someone doesn’t believe that an art museum is “for people like me,” then it may not matter if that organization offers free admission. Being free may certainly be a part of being welcoming for some select organizations that have been doing the hard work to engage more diverse audiences, but welcoming perceptions are based more strongly on culture and efforts to prioritize diversity and inclusion than admission status alone.
Free admission museums have less non-white participation.
These values are close, but the fact that free admission organizations are not dramatically improving diversity measures may surprise some folks.
You may be wondering why “non-white” is used below as opposed to other nomenclature used to describe the myriad nuance of racial and ethnic diversity among our audiences – and it’s a good question! No doubt, it is important to acknowledge the multiplicity and complexity of self-identifiers that people use to describe their respective ethnic identities. For the more narrow purpose of segmenting audiences by self-identified ethnic cohort, we continue to rely on the framework established by the US Government’s 1997 Office of Management and Budget standards – the same classifications to which the US Census Bureau abides. Indeed, it was not until the 2000 US Census that individuals were even given the option to self-identify with more than one race or ethnicity. Admittedly, these classifications are far from perfect and arguably overly broad; however, they intend to provide a continuity of reporting for the purposes of measuring changes and hopeful progress over time.
There may be some circular reasoning at play here: It may be that free admission organizations believe “being free” to be the start and end of their primary access programming, thereby perhaps resulting in less investment in access programming that actively aims to engage otherwise underserved communities. Additionally, paid admission organizations may secure greater revenue to reinvest in targeted access programs for more diverse individuals. Indeed, “reaching out to welcome in” requires investments of time and resources.
The single most-shared characteristic amongst recent museum visitors is that they identify themselves as white, non-Hispanic individuals. As most entities know, this is a problem for the long-term solvency of museums in a diverse nation like the US.
Generally, museums are not engaging non-white individuals at representative levels. Also, and critically, our industry doesn’t generally adjust for population growth. This means that the percentage of non-white folks visiting museums should go up over time no matter what simply because the population is getting bigger. If it doesn’t, that’s a big problem.
Being welcoming is more than being free
Blaming admission cost – or lack thereof – for our industry’s inability to more effectively engage diverse audiences can be a distraction from the real, more difficult barriers that prevent folks from visiting. These include establishing ongoing relevance for different kinds of people in order to overcome negative substitution, and rising above the noise by developing authentic, unique experiences in a world where there is increasingly less cause to leave the house and a greater desire to stay home.
Being welcoming doesn’t happen by offering a straightforward one-off program or offering free admission (though it may not hurt, depending on the organization). Being welcoming involves weaving values of diversity, equity, and inclusion into the entire fabric of the experience and organizational culture – and celebrating thoughtful, targeted access programs that actually work.
Although it may be uncomfortable to hear, free admission is still not a panacea for welcoming new audiences.
IMPACTS Experience provides data specific to organizations or markets through workshops, keynote presentations, webinars, and data services such as pricing recommendations, market potential analyses, concept testing, and Awareness, Attitude, and Usage studies. Learn more.
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