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The Museum Fiscal Cliff?

The incessant drum beat about “The Fiscal Cliff” coming out of Washington coupled with news that the Dallas Museum of Art will eliminate its admission fees (as outlined in this excellent LA Times article) got me thinking again about the economic future of museums.

Museums, maybe even more than other non-profits and cultural institutions, seem happy to play the Blanche DuBois card and “depend on the kindness of strangers.”  Unfortunately for museums, relying on tax-leveraged donations or corporate/philanthropic largesse, presents some fundamental challenges to a sustainable future.  Here are two large practical issues looming on the edge of a potential museum fiscal cliff:

• Demographics: The fine folks at Reach Advisors have pointed out again and again the practical demographic issues facing museums. (See this post for instance.)  Put simply, museum visitors (paying or otherwise) tend to be older and whiter than the current population at large, and the future demographic trends for the U.S. as well.

Leaving the very real concern of visitor demographics aside, why can’t museums make a go of it on pure admission numbers alone?  As the AAM has reported:

There are approximately 850 million visits each year to American museums, more than the attendance for all major league sporting events and theme parks combined (471 million).

If we really have this volume of annual visitors, why are museums constantly rattling their begging cups?

 
• Marketing Gimmicks:  Museums have become great at selling the “sizzle” (marketing hype) instead of the “steak” (their core collections and activities.)  It really has become one step above professional wrestling marketing techniques in some cases.  If some museum professionals feel they need to “trick” people into visiting their institutions, are they really in the right business?

As writer Christopher Knight aptly notes in the same LA Times article mentioned above, many museums have coupled these carny come-ons to membership incentives as well:
 

Fundamentally, it means expanding the museum’s membership. The usual method for that is pretty degraded: Program the museum with lightweight entertainments to appeal to audiences with no interest in art, and then offer discounted admission to new members who otherwise wouldn’t dream of dropping 10 bucks — or $40, $60 or more if the whole family comes along — to see a beautiful 10th century Indian sandstone carving of Vishnu or a fine 1919 Cubist still life by Picasso in the permanent collection.

Hucksterism is the common term for the usual member’s discount, with art regarded as P.T. Barnum’s Fiji mermaid and visitors urged to step right this way to check out the egress. The gambit mostly creates churn: An attendance surge is followed by a drop, until the next high calorie/low nutrition program juices the numbers again.


So, what’s the real “value proposition”for museums? 
What are the museum experiences that will draw a majority of folks from the local communities?  I’d argue that that the strongest draw that museums still have (over every other type of media) is their “stories and stuff.”  The opportunity to engage with amazing physical (not virtual) objects and compelling narratives in a communal, social environment is what museums should be selling if they want to avoid their own “fiscal cliff.”

I applaud directors like Maxwell Anderson who are decoupling from the old-style “entitlement program” funding model most U.S. museums work under.  It’s really a return to the fundamentals of the museum value proposition — “we have amazing stuff we’d like to share with you.”

What do you think?  Is your museum facing its own fiscal cliff(s)? Should museums jettison their old-school admissions and funding models?  Leave your thoughts in the “Comments” Section below!

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