Museum Admission as an Expression of Mission

As a follow-up to my article, “Mind Games, Museums, and Suggested Donations,” I’ve been looking into the ways that museums set their general admission prices. Discussions regarding museum admission often carry moral undertones. Recently, editorials have expressed the usual mild outrage at first the Met’s and now MoMA’s price hikes from $20 to $25. (See, for example, A Balancing Act for Museums in the NYT and MoMA’s Price Increase is Horrible on The Awl. On a side note, in honor of the price hikes, Forbes published a nice, short piece on customer segmentation in museums.) The sentiment is, “Museums should be free,” or “Museums should always be affordable for all.” But perpetual free (or cheap) admission is not intrinsic to the idea of the museum in the United States. Public museums are few and far between here. Our museums are private institutions founded, often, on the collections of private individuals. Some museums choose to express their mission through free admission, and others do not.

Museums’ pricing structures aren’t a question of universal morality. They’re a question of mission. Mission first. In the case of MoMA, organizational priorities include maintaining a peerless collection, producing the impressive, expensive exhibitions, and retaining its position as an international tourist destination. In support of this mission, a $25 admission price makes sense. Besides, the museum isn’t asking regulars to pay this price. With a $75 individual membership, if you visit every other month, that’s only $12.50 a visit. Accessibility regardless of ability to pay remains a priority, if a secondary one, for MoMA, and this manifests through free Friday nights. Every museum must make pricing decisions that reflect its particular mission.

What about breaking even, you may ask. True, museums talk a lot about rising operational expenses when they raise admission prices. But for the most part, costs aren’t just magically increasing on their own. Rather, they’re driven by decisions about the mission and future of the institution.

The museums with whom I’ve spoken haven’t shed much light on the types of considerations or calculations that go into setting admission prices. Mostly, they describe a rather intuitive process. The Modern in Fort Worth looked at the admission prices at similar institutions and set its price ($10 general admission) based on these comparisons and a sense of what would allow a certain level of accessibility. The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston wouldn’t go any further than to say that they set the admission price ($7 general admission) in 2000 when the museum more than doubled in size and operating costs rose significantly.

Personally, I’m quite invested in keeping admission prices low. It signals openness to the public in a way that nothing else can. However, there’s no one right way to price a visit or a membership, because these are mission-driven decisions made in the context of a particular market. MoMA is making a tradeoff between accessibility and collections, exhibitions, and programming. Because of this, MoMA is able to collect, exhibit, and program in a way that few museums can. Other museums make the tradeoff differently. They choose to keep prices low, and they are able to do less. Although I am a staunch supporter of free and inexpensive museum admission, I see MoMA as providing different services than those museums. It’s a tradeoff.

also by Claire Ruud

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7 responses to “Museum Admission as an Expression of Mission”

  1. I think the Met’s approach is best. They state what they’d like you to pay but let you pay what you can afford. Makes for repeat visits as you don’t feel compelled to do the whole collection but will pop in to see a favorite piece for $1.

  2. [...] Claire Ruud of Glasstire writes a follow-up to her “Mind Games, Museums, and Suggested Donations” feature. “Museums’ [...]

  3. One of the effects of free admission for museums in the UK was that museum costs went up significantly in relation to visitor numbers. Whilst government funding filled the gap to some extent, as this gets squeezed both at a central and local level, this puts much more pressure on the museums. The risk is that the mission suffers in this situation. I believe there is a strong argument for following the principle of getting people who can afford to pay, but ensuring that there is way that those who can not afford to can still enter free.

  4. I agree with your conclusion that it is all about mission. When the museum that I work at lost a major portion of its funding, the board had to make the very difficult decision to cut almost 100% of staff, in order to ensure enough money to retain the collection and facility intact. This meant that the exhibitions were no longer being updated, and the final display lacked the quality of earlier work.
    Although the money situation was (and still is) desperate, they chose to drop the cost of admission to $1, because they wanted people to continue to visit and enjoy, but did not feel that it was fair to charge full price for a lesser product.
    In our case, the mission to maintain the collection for the good of the public outweighed the temptation of raising admission.
    As an aside, we see a lot more voluntary donations with the lowered price, showing that people who can afford more will often want to support your mission above what you are asking, and those who cannot still get to enjoy and learn.

  5. When I was in charge of visitor services at a large midwestern art museum, I was a fan of one admission price for ‘permanent collection’, an add-on/extra admission price for ‘special exhibitions’. For those who are members, the permanent collection can be a consistent benefit, and a reduced admission for members to see special exhibitions can compel visitors to become members if the special exhibitions are their attraction.

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  7. Your excellent piece contributed soundly to the current dialog on museum pricing. At my firm, TRG Arts, where I lead counsel to museums, there is agreement that museum pricing is a mission-based decision. We’ll add that there are diverse missions upon which museums of all genres and sizes are built and various sustaining funding sources that mandate parameters or requirements for free or low-cost admission. However, it’s clear to us that most museums need some combination of ticket revenue and contributed income to bring their collections to the public. So, while mission and funding sources are foundational, all museums have some need to maximize revenue on whatever admission price they set. We advocate that demand must be a baseline consideration for museum pricing strategy. See my post here: http://bit.ly/vTGREc
    Done right and well, demand-based pricing strategy is a value proposition that reflects mission and is built from careful analysis of an institution’s public. It comes from and is for the people a museum serves.

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