12. They're too crowded // Museums have an urgent opportunity to grow their audiences
I’m very happy to report that, according to figures provided by the American Alliance of Museums, there are roughly 850 million visits made annually to American museums. That’s nearly twice the amount of folks attending major league sporting events and visiting theme parks (about 480 million annually).
But rather than fewer visitors, museums need to open their doors even wider—specifically, museums now increasingly reach out to minority communities and low-income families, many of whom felt excluded or marginalized by institutions of the past. In the words of Reach Advisors, analyzing their own 2010 survey of over 40,000 museum-going households: “Museums are overwhelmingly visited by white, non-Hispanics… there are huge gulfs between museums and African American audiences and Hispanic audience.” Broadly speaking, households without access to arts, culture, science and technology education struggle financially, and face serious challenges in the classroom and workplace. Museums can help to change that, and many have begun outreach to benefit their target audiences. Museum programs, like the Youth Exploring Science initiative launched at the Saint Louis Science Center in 1997, are often aimed at getting young people involved with science, technology, arts and culture, preparing them to be leaders, educators, and innovators. Museums can be—and must be—active players in bringing vital resources to struggling communities.
The “museum of the future”—a hot topic lately on Twitter, boosted by talks at the British Museum—will likely look much different than the museums of today. The future of museums as viable community leaders and cultural heritage keepers will rely on their ability to adapt as well as to preserve.
13. They cost a fortune in public money // Museums keep the public trust while boosting the economy
It’s often said that museums hold their collections in the “public trust.” This means more than simply keeping precious objects accessible and on view—museums have a commitment to preserving, teaching, and illuminating our shared cultural heritage. And they perform these services while returning enormous social and economic value to their communities. Current figures provided by the American Alliance of Museums show that over 400,000 Americans are currently employed by museums, and that more than 21 billion dollars is contributed annually to the US economy from museums alone—not counting the additional billions contributed indirectly by their patrons, and the dollars generated from tourism. As the AAM states, “The nonprofit arts and culture industry annually generates over $135 billion in economic activity, supports more than 4.1 million full-time jobs and returns over $22 billion in local, state and federal tax revenues.” Wow!
Museums are economic powerhouses. So, what do they really cost? The answer is, museums typically provide service and access at bargain rates. On average, American museums receive less than 25% of their annual funding from government support. A 2008 study produced by the Institute of Museum and Library Services shows the breakdown by museum type, demonstrating that the vast majority of museums receive about 75% of their funding from earned income, private gifts, and investments. Most funding is generated from earned income: ticket sales, shops and cafes, workshops and classes, and special events.
You might think to yourself, well, what about nonprofit museums? The same study demonstrated that nonprofit museums actually rely less on government support, drawing more dollars from private gifts and once again, earned income. Nonprofit museums are perhaps the greatest public funding bargain of all!
(For a study in contrast, you may want to check out the figures on building public sports stadiums- one recent $117 million construction project in Chester, PA, was built with 97% public funding, relying almost entirely on taxpayer money. And stadium replacement rates have risen to over 90%, with projected figures placing build costs at an estimated $249 million per new stadium. Meanwhile, stadiums generate a bare fraction of the revenue produced by museums. Museums: true bang for the taxpayer’s buck!)
14. Entry fees are pricey, even then // Struggling museums still retain their commitment to accessibility
The unfortunate reality is, museums receive less federal and state funding every year, as more and more budget cuts are made to deal with economic downturns. Yet museums—even those that are struggling to keep the lights on—still maintain strong commitments to making their collections accessible to the public. For an example of this spirit in action, see the Delaware Art Museum, which despite facing serious financial hardship, remains free and open to all on Sundays, with a busy events calendar featuring free gallery talks, family programming, and performances.
The AAM reports that in 2012, 37% of Americans museums offered free admission to all guests daily, or else used a “suggested donation” system that allows for reduced fees. Almost all of the rest—63% —offered weekly free days or frequent admission discounts. In 2013 alone, more than 700,000 members of military families received free museum admissions through the “Blue Star” program. Additionally, most museums offer discounts and special programming for seniors and students.
So how much does it actually cost to stage an exhibition? Many exhibits are prepared in-house, meaning that a dedicated army of curators, administrators, builders and fabricators, art handlers, marketing professionals, educators, and visitor services personnel will be involved from start to finish, creating a new exhibit from the ground up. Others are traveling exhibitions, rented from other museums or major production companies—these can cost anywhere from $15,000 to $200,000, and will still require tireless effort from museum staff in the planning, preparation, and staging of the event, not to mention the creation of educational materials, audio guides, and much more. Blockbuster shows may draw enormous international crowds—like the 2005 Salvador Dalí exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which welcomed 370,000 visitors—but they also require enormous resources. As the charts above demonstrate, museums rely much more on ticket sales and admissions for their funding than on government resources: meaning every dollar spent at a museum stretches a long way towards supporting new programs.
15. Most of the objects are kept out of sight // Visible storage illuminates hidden treasures for all
Light, movement, and open air can be healthy for humans, but deadly to delicate objects: textiles, paintings, botanical specimens, and organic materials of all kinds can suffer damage when they’re exposed to UV rays, air pollution, humidity, and other common environmental factors. Despite museum efforts to control climate within their spaces, sometimes reality intervenes—creating issues like the heat wave experienced at the Borghese Gallery in Rome earlier this year. Therefore, special storage solutions may be employed for particularly fragile but precious objects. (A good primer on these issues has been created by the Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art in Gainesville, Florida.) Keeping them out of sight may ensure that future generations have a chance to learn from them.
But museums know that people are hungry to see more—so in the last decade, many have elected to transform their hidden treasure rooms into “visible storage,” a pioneering concept that allows visitors and researchers to see, enjoy, and study the thousands of museum objects kept behind the scenes, while keeping objects protected. The Brooklyn Museum’s Luce Center for American Art contains over 5,000 square feet of visible storage, offering the public more than 2,000 additional objects beyond the display collections. Initiatives like these (and more at LACMA, the Met, and other major collections) will transform the way we think about storage and collections management, and open vast new wonderlands to museum audiences!
To be continued...