The Fine Art of Museum Admission Pricing

With funding tight, what to charge visitors is a crucial question

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BUYING A TICKET to an art museum? That will be $25. Or $14. Or $2. Or possibly free, depending on where you're going, who you are and what day of the week it is. How much to charge visitors has become a complex and controversial question for museums. As funding gets harder to come by, museums are under greater financial pressure — so they're taking a closer look at how they set admission prices. The result is a hodgepodge of approaches as they try to figure out the best way to maximize revenue while giving the most people access.

Painted into a corner
Funding pressures are hitting museums from all sides. Government arts agencies continue to slash their budgets. Hosts of new nonprofits are springing up each year, spreading donor dollars thinner. And many museums have undertaken big capital projects that need to be paid off. Many museums are cutting costs, laying off staff and reducing programs. But those changes rarely do the trick. So tinkering with admission prices can be crucial.
 In many cases, the price is set by the most prominent museums, and others follow, for fear of seeming too expensive. For instance, many museums in tourist destinations have decided that $25 is what customers will bear, so other institutions have adopted that as well.
 The number “appears to be the prevalent number for admissions, based on comparable prices elsewhere,” says Philippe de Montebello, director of New York's Acquavella Galleries and former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “You don't want to be out of line with what other institutions are charging.”
 Often, though, increased admissions fees apply to only one group of visitors: tourists. The Met plans to impose a $25 admissions charge for visitors who are not New York state residents starting this March. But its pay-what-you-wish policy remains in effect for New Yorkers with valid IDs, as well as for students in Connecticut, New Jersey and New York.
 The logic? Out-of-state and international visitors annually account for an average 50% to 55% of total visitor numbers, and the new policy aims to better monetize that group, says Daniel Weiss, the museum's president and chief executive officer. The old system no longer works, he says. “In 2004, 63% of visitors paid the fully suggested price,” but in 2017 only 17% did, he says.
 Officials at some museums say there's a deeper philosophy at work in their treatment of out-of-state visitors. Local taxpayers are their principal stakeholders, they say, and deserve a discount based on their support. Moreover, some officials are betting that raising prices on out-of-town visitors won't decrease their admissions numbers significantly because those tourists simply aren't that sensitive to price.

A change in perspective
But even as many museums raise prices, some worry about what the increases mean for less-affluent visitors and the young art fans who are vital to their long-term growth. So, in some cases, museums don't charge any visitors an entrance fee.
 “We eliminated admissions in 1999 as an incentive to encourage visitors,” says Julian Zugazagoitia, director of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., “because we are not pursuing our mission if people can't afford to come here.” He says the museum found ways to make the admissions policy “revenue-neutral.” Entry is free, but there's a cost for parking, as well as admission to special exhibitions.
 Along similar lines, many museums are instituting variable pricing, which they say makes admissions easier for the neediest arts fans but also brings in more total visitors and thus more revenue.
 The Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, Calif., has a top admissions price of $10 for adults, with seniors, college students and active service members of the military paying $8, children ages 7 to 17 paying $5, and those 6 or younger allowed in free. In addition, the third Sunday of every month is free to all.
 Some museums are moving to flat prices, also reasoning that it will help less-affluent visitors while also raising total revenue. The High Museum of Art in Atlanta used to charge a top rate of $19.50 for adults, with separate prices for others, but lowered that in October 2016 to one flat rate of $14.50. (Children ages 5 and under still are free, and all visitors get in free the second Sunday of the month.)
 “We heard from people that $19.50 was out of whack with the other cultural opportunities in Atlanta and served as a barrier to some,” says the museum's director, Randall Suffolk. At the same time, age-group discounts groups brought the average ticket revenue below $12 a person. At the new flat rate, average revenue rose to around $13. And minority groups rose to 45% of visitors from 15%.
 Mr. Suffolk says there's a larger principle at work, too. “Why are some people more deserving of a discount than others? Who isn't economically challenged these days?”


The Milwaukee Art Museum is free to Wisconsin teachers.

How Much for a Ticket? It's Complicated
Museum prices vary, depending on who you are and when you visit.

ART INSTITUTE OF CHICAGO CHICAGO RESIDENTS:
ADULTS: $20
SENIORS: $14
STUDENTS: $14
TEENS: Free

ILLINOIS
RESIDENTS:
ADULTS: $22
SENIORS: $16
STUDENTS: $16
TEENS: $16

OTHERS:
ADULTS: $25
SENIORS: $19
STUDENTS: $19
TEENS: $19

PHILADELPHIA MUSEUM OF ART ADULTS: $20
SENIORS: $18
STUDENTS: $14
TEENS: $14
PA ACCESS: $2
FREE: Children 12 and under; local art students
PAYWHAT YOU WISH: First Sunday of the month (10 a.m. - 5 p.m.); Wednesdays (5 p.m. - 8:45 p.m.).
BARNES FOUNDATION Philadelphia ADULTS: $30
SENIORS: $28
STUDENTS: $5
TEENS: $5
FREE: Access/EBT cardholders; Philadelphia teachers (Sundays); active-duty military members and family (Memorial Day - Labor Day)
AUTRY MUSEUM OF THE AMERICAN WEST ADULTS: $14
SENIORS: $10
STUDENTS: $10
CHILDREN: $6 (ages 3-12)
FREE: Children under 3; active military personnel and veterans, peace officers and park rangers
MILWAUKEE ART MUSEUM ADULTS: $19
SENIORS: $17
STUDENTS: $17
FREE: Children 12 and under; Wisconsin teachers; first Thursday of each month; free passes to Boys and Girls Clubs, YMCA, YWCA
MUSEUM OF MODERN ART New York ADULTS: $25
SENIORS: $18
STUDENTS: $14
FREE: Children 16 and under; Fridays 4 to 8 p.m.
WALTERS ART MUSEUM Baltimore FREE

Note: Museum members receive free admission. Age ranges for seniors, students and teens vary; ID may be required for some discounts and free admission.

 

BY DANIEL GRANT

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