Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Is There a Formula for Free Admission?

There are plenty of great arguments out there for WHY to make museums free. But HOW do you do it?

It's much easier for art and history museums than for those museums that rely on admissions for a majority of their income (science, children's). Nationally, admissions income generates only 1-4% of most art museums' annual revenue. Max Anderson, currently director of the Dallas Museum of Art, is a fervent champion for art museums being free. As Anderson put it, "At what point are you going to allow something like 2.5 percent of your revenue to get in the way of mission fulfillment, of serving the fullest potential audience?"

Indeed. I've been curious about free admission for a long time. It's one of the things I'd like to do at our museum in Santa Cruz but haven't made happen yet. The philosophical rationale is simple: if we are really a community institution, an institution for and with the public, we should be free.

The financial rationale is a bit more complex than replacing 1-4% of the budget. There's the potential loss of membership gifts from people who are motivated by receiving free daytime admission. There's the potential need for more floor staff and security (hopefully)! There's the expectation--hopefully backed by a plan--that new philanthropic gifts will outweigh the loss of "value"-motivated members.

We've started looking seriously into making the move to free admission at our museum, and as we've done the research on other institutions, a pattern has emerged. Museums that are successfully moving to free admission appear to use the following formula:
  1. Secure a philanthropic gift equivalent to 3-7 years of the lost revenue from daytime admissions.
  2. Aggressively market the philanthropic benefits of a free museum. Create a new value proposition for giving that is rooted in the idea that the museum is free and open to all. Recruit new members and donors who are invested in supporting public access. 
When we looked at museums that went free and then switched back to charging, we noticed that either one of these factors was missing or broke down. 

You need the multi-year gift to give you some runway. Even 2% of the budget is hard to replace if there isn't an obvious other source out there. Five-ish years appears to be long enough to build up the replacement philanthropic support for being a free institution.

You need the emphasis on philanthropy because donors are the only ones who are willing to pay for free admission (even in small increments, like Tacoma Children's Museum's Pay as You Will policy). You shouldn't expect gift shop or cafe sales to increase with free admission. When museums are free, people use them more frequently, for more casual reasons. They don't treat the visit as a destination multi-hour experience necessitating a meal and a souvenir.

Does this formula add up?
Any other ingredients you have seen work--or fail--in making a museum free?

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