Museum attendance up, income down, survey says
Most of the nation's museums reported better attendance during 2009, but that didn't necessarily salvage the bottom line, says the American Assn. of Museums, which conducted an online survey last month and released its results on Friday.
About 57% of the responding museums reported better attendance than in 2008; about a seventh of the respondents said they'd seen an increase of 20% or more, and 25% said attendance was up by 5% to 20%.
But the bad economy took a toll. The money museums earn from admission fees and other visitor spending typically covers only a third of overall costs, according to the association, a Washington-based nonprofit service and advocacy group. Attendance gains notwithstanding, 67% of the 481 museums in the survey said they had felt financial stress during 2009, and 26% characterized that stress as severe (bad, but not the worst since 2004) or very severe (the worst since 2004). About half the museums (49%) said their revenues had dropped from 2008, and only 27% said income had increased.
"The overall picture ... is better than we expected, given the general state of the economy," said Philip Katz, the assistant research director who wrote the report.
One out of seven respondents had tried to cope by raising admission prices, or by ending free admissions policies. As a result, only 34% of the museums in the survey had free admission, down from 41% in 2008. Not wanting to exclude people on limited budgets, about 29% of museums that charged admission said they had increased their number of free days.
The most common explanations for the increase in attendance given by museums were more aggressive marketing to local communities, people cutting back on travel and trying to find less expensive and closer-to-home leisure pursuits, and the sense that museum admission prices are a good deal compared with other options. The median admission fee in the survey was unchanged from last year, at $7 -- meaning that half the surveyed museums charge $7 or less, and half charged more.
For museums whose attendance dropped, factors cited included declining tourism, a bad economy, fewer visits from school groups (dealing with their own budget cutbacks) and reduced staff and operating hours.
The association estimates that a nation of about 307 million and its foreign visitors made 697 million visits to museums in 2009. But the report cautions that museums have different ways of counting attendance -- some count visitors who may have come to a festival on the museum's grounds but not gone inside, and some may include attendance at off-site events.
The association invited 2,300 of its member museums to take part in the survey, representing a cross section of categories, budget sizes and regions. The response rate was 21%.
-- Mike Boehm
Photo: Visitors at the Hammer Museum in Westwood. Credit: Stefanie Keenan / Hammer Museum