Betting on Increasing Arts Access: Will the Admissions Gamble Pay Off?

The High Museum of Art. (Image courtesy of the High Museum.)
The High Museum of Art. (Image courtesy of the High Museum.)

While visiting The Broad Museum in Los Angeles over a year ago, I was blown away by both the prominence of featured artists and the fact that I was able to have access to such work for free. Kara Walker, Jeff Koons, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Roy Lichtenstein, Keith Haring, El Anatsui, Jasper Johns, Barbara Kruger and Andy Warhol were just a few of the artists whose work was presented by the contemporary art museum founded by philanthropists Eli and Edythe Broad that opened in September 2015. By showcasing 2,000 works in a 120,000-square-foot, $140-million building, The Broad could easily get away with charging $15 to $20 for admission, I figured, but to offer it for free?

Free access made the art on display, despite the substantial value attached to many of the pieces, feel more like a priceless resource, a gift available to enrich a much larger community rather than just a financially privileged segment. However, the reality is that most museums and cultural institutions can’t afford to operate with a free admissions model, at least not without causing a significant shift in how they function.  

Brian Ferriso, Executive Director of the Portland Museum of Art.
Brian Ferriso, executive director of the Portland Art Museum.

Brian Ferriso, director of the Portland Art Museum and president of the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), is a strong proponent of museums offering free admissions and believes it comes down to factors in local communities. “Ideally you would want museums to be accessible like the library, very much integrated into the community — a resource for all, not an attraction for a few,” Ferriso explains. “I’ve worked in various cities, and I’ve talked to a number of my colleagues about this. It’s a local question. And the local question depends on resources and allocation of resources for that community and what they can afford. I know in my community, here right now, we went free for children 17-and-under right when I arrived, but we decided not to go free all the time because we knew we couldn’t afford it. We couldn’t afford it. Both the admission dollars and the membership dollars were too critical [to our annual budget].”

The link between admissions fees and memberships can often make it harder to separate and phase out admissions fees as part of the revenue mix for an arts institution, as many cultural spaces entice patrons to buy memberships that include free and expanded access along with other perks.

According to the recently released Art Museums by the Numbers 2016, a study compiled by the AAMD, there is a relatively small dependence on admissions fees alone at institutions compared to other sources of funding. The AAMD represents more than 200 art museum directors in the U.S., Canada and Mexico, and the data collected reflects the fiscal year 2015 or fiscal year 2016 data, depending on their fiscal calendar.

The study reports museums across the country have fairly diverse revenue streams, with endowment income (22%), combined college/university and federal, state and local government support (18%) and individual and family contributions (11%) accounting for over half of all revenue. Admissions revenue accounts for just 6% of revenue, on par with Individual & Family memberships, and just behind contributions from Foundations & Trusts (7%). Corporate contributions and memberships, benefit events, facility rentals, restaurants and catering and exhibition fees all make up between 1–4%, respectively.

Atlanta Contemporary became a free institution in _____. Image courtesy Atlanta Contemporary.
Atlanta Contemporary made the brazen decision to cut its admission costs completely in 2015. (Image courtesy of Atlanta Contemporary.)

By examining that “local question” through the lens of two Atlanta-based arts institutions — the High Museum of Art and Atlanta Contemporary — it appears they’ve approached their recent admissions changes in different ways. Hopefully by now you’ve taken advantage of free admission at Atlanta Contemporary or the price reduction at the High Museum ($14.50 for adults, down from $19.50), but these moves could be the “crawl” stage of admissions changes at Atlanta arts institutions before a full-on “sprint” down the road.

On the surface, it would seem that the larger-budgeted High Museum would be in better position to go fully free, while Atlanta Contemporary might be wary of such a move and opt for the baby-step of a price reduction. How these two organizations got to their respective places of change says a lot about how they currently see themselves and what they hope their long-term reality turns out to be. The High wants to put itself in a position to draw more value out of its already large regional audience without sacrificing a mature revenue stream, while Atlanta Contemporary hopes to attract outside support from funders wanting to connect with its dramatically growing visibility. For large organizations, a small change can have a significant impact if executed properly; for smaller organizations, big growth can often necessitate big changes.

With these recent admissions changes, will other Atlanta arts institutions follow suit?

Beyond that speculation, the biggest challenge still faced by arts institutions in the area is creating innovative experiences. Ultimately, the goal is to entice a larger chunk of the region’s 5 million residents to overcome the sprawl, fight the traffic, turn off the football game or just simply make engaging with art a higher priority on a more regular basis. Solve that riddle, and a museum director may have unlocked a bountiful treasure chest that fattens budgets and membership lists alike.

“If you could do anything that would completely change your organization, what would you do?”

That was the question faced by leaders at Atlanta Contemporary three years ago as they contemplated a new direction. They ultimately answered that big issue by deciding to focus even deeper on where the organization was located (Atlanta) and what its mission was (contemporary art), ushering in a transformational moment for the organization.

The pivotal decision to remove its admissions fee was actually the realization of a larger strategic initiative by the Nonprofit Finance Fund and the Community Foundation to build capacity for arts organizations in Atlanta, and included several months of mentorship, consultation and $200,000 over three years in seed funding for Atlanta Contemporary to implement its free admission model. In the summer of 2015, Atlanta Contemporary announced it would do away with its $8 admissions fee on September 1 of that year. This change marked a major inflection point within the organization that also included a rebranding and renaming of the organization — changing from the “Atlanta Contemporary Arts Center” to simply “Atlanta Contemporary.” Since then, the emphasis on free admission has been an integral part of its marketing and outreach focus.

According to Atlanta Contemporary executive director Veronica Kessenich, “We understood that we would need to undergo a major rebranding to market ourselves to a new, growing audience of people who are arts interested patrons, but also nonarts interested patrons . . . people who don’t necessarily identify as an art lover, but who are culturally interested.”

A year later, and the changes have been dramatic. Attendance at Atlanta Contemporary is up 80%, and the visitor demographics are starting to reflect the city’s diversity better — 56% Caucasian, 33% African-American, 7% Asian-American and 4% Hispanic/Latino since the change in admissions. This is compared to 74% Caucasian, 21% African-American, 3% Asian-American and 2% Hispanic/Latino beforehand.

With the increased attendance and attention, the big challenge now for the organization is to turn that extra attention into added financial support. By making the move to forego at-the-door admissions, Atlanta Contemporary anticipated a drop in revenue, as individual contributions (annual support and memberships) and admissions previously accounted for a combined 22% of its operating budget. However, it has offset that revenue loss with an increased emphasis on higher value memberships, special events ticket sales (e.g. ART PARTY and Home Is Where the Art Is), merchandise and at-the-door donations, which are up more than 60% from the last fiscal year.

Additionally, there’s an increased emphasis on tracking the flow of visitors to space and capturing census-related data (race, zip codes, etc.) to understand better how and when the audience is shifting and responding to programming. It seems that the “if you build it, they will come” philosophy is in effect. Now the question is, “Who will fund it?”

“It’s going to cost more than just the funds we received,” Kessenich admits. “Now, truly we’re challenged with increasing philanthropy . . . getting people to fund the arts is an imperative.”

Before going completely free, Free Thursdays — an initiative sponsored by Perennial Properties — had always been a strong draw for Atlanta Contemporary, with most of their openings and artist talks taking place during that time: a 38% jump in attendance compared to other days of the week. Kessenich, former development director at the organization before assuming the role of executive director in July 2015, felt like Free Thursdays could ultimately be the impetus for a fully free model that could leverage the support of an expanding community.

“It made sense to go free,” says Kessenich. “Now we’re trying to capitalize on the advantages of that and figure out a way to ultimately grow our audience. Then we must convince those new audiences that we’re worthy of their support.” She continues, “It’s a different kind of philanthropic model . . . if we’re serving not just thousands of people, but hundreds of thousands of individuals, that’s an investment that I think companies and high net-worth individuals would want to get behind.”

Serving hundreds of thousands of people isn’t a major concern at the High Museum right now, but how to extract more value from that audience is where the focus seemingly lies.

One of the first major moves of Director of the High Museum of Art Rand Suffolk was reducing admission costs to the museum. Image courtesy the High Museum of Art.
One of the first major moves of director of the High Museum of Art Rand Suffolk was reducing admission costs to the museum. (Image courtesy of the High Museum of Art.)

The High Museum recently announced it was restructuring its admissions prices, decreasing general admission to $14.50 from $19.50 — by far the boldest move of new director Rand Suffolk’s nascent yearlong tenure. And while it would be a stretch to consider this move a major “splash,” perhaps it does signal the High wants to be more in line with what it perceives is a changing marketplace for arts institutions.

Upon the beginning of Suffolk’s stint at the High, he met with stakeholders inside and outside of the organization to determine what the most pressing challenges and opportunities were moving into the future.

“One of the things that I heard again and again through that process was there was some level of concern, or questioning at least, about whether or not our price had become increasingly an obstacle to access for us and our audience,” Suffolk said. He continued, “And so because it was one of those top three or five things I heard, again and again, it was towards the top of my list.”

This emphasis on revamped admissions, or the “gate” as Suffolk calls it, represents a sweet spot for the organization that, with a more streamlined approach to how they market the organization and deliver programming, he believes will allow the High to continue to generate revenue while increasing a number of visitors who could be cultivated into paying, lifelong members over time.

(Image Source: Art Museums by the Numbers 2016)
(Image Source: Art Museums by the Numbers, 2016)

While it’s tempting to suggest that admissions account for a relatively small percentage of standalone revenue that could be made up for in other ways, removing admissions altogether could also remove the incentive for patrons to purchase memberships, which could ultimately result in a double-digit impact on an organization. According to Suffolk:

The first institution I was the director of, we were free admission. My last one was not free admission. We talked about it, and I can tell you that wicked smart people equally and deeply committed to the mission of the museum and what it stands for — half the room says, “we absolutely have to figure out a way to be free,” the other half says, “people only value what they pay for, even if it’s something.” So it’s a tough nut to crack. Unless you have some outside funding source that can come in and say, “we’re going to endow that,” it can be tricky.

Tricky indeed, but perhaps not impossible. With more than a third of the institutions in the AAMD study currently offering free admission and 7% asking for suggested donations, there’s a sense that if the will is there — from patrons, government and corporations alike — more could be accomplished in this area to elevate access to the arts to the same level of priority as other pillars of our local community. According to Ferriso:

I would say the ideal is free admission . . . we need great hospitals, we need great libraries, we need great educational institutions, universities, public schools, social service organizations, and we need great museums because art needs to be at the same, or at least valued at the same, level as all of those. We need to feed, or not only take care of our bodies but also feed our souls. And I believe that museums are just as important as the hospital fighting cancer, just as important as the public schools, so again I think that would be the ideal.

(Image Source: Art Museums by the Numbers, 2016)

So back to that “local question” of how the arts are prioritized in the community. If the concept of free admission to art in the Atlanta region is to become a widespread reality, what support needs to be organized? What partnerships or coalitions need to be formed to advocate for that? Is it even a priority among patrons? Is there a case to be made to the local business community?

At this point, there are more questions than answers, and not enough community and arts leaders advocating for this kind of transformation within Atlanta’s arts culture. In the meantime, if indulging in contemporary fine art is your thing, you may want to set your sights West. In case you haven’t heard, yet another (free) contemporary art museum is set to open in Los Angeles this spring; and of course, don’t forget about The Broad.

 

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