How Much Would You Pay to Visit Your Local Art Museum?

Visitor Use Statistics for the Indianapolis Museum of Art from December 9 to December 22, 2014.

Visitor Use Statistics for the Indianapolis Museum of Art from December 9 to December 22, 2014.

The Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA) is a good art museum, staffed by friendly people and located on beautiful grounds. Some of the employees and interns there are my friends, and I was on a research team that conducted an evaluation study at the museum earlier this year. I visited the museum at least a half dozen times while I lived in Indianapolis and think the institution is an important civic destination for the entire city.

I was quite surprised a few days ago when I heard about the IMA’s recent decision to raise its admission fee from free to $18 ($10 for kids 6-17) starting in April 2015. Buried deep within an official December 12 announcement about a “new campus enhancement plan,” the IMA (beyond the usual desire to boost memberships and the “we need to guarantee long-term financial sustainability” argument) justifies the price hike on the basis of visitor convenience, asserting that “visitor research has shown that the IMA guests do not like paying for parking and key programs like exhibitions separately.” Elsewhere the IMA board chairman, Thomas Hiatt, further justifies the increase by arguing that the new admission fee is in line with other Indianapolis destinations like the Children’s Museum and the Zoo and cites the Huntington in Pasadena, California, as a model institution for instituting an admission fee to boost both visitor attendance and financial endowment.  Finally, a few supporters have argued–with some justification–that the new pricing model is actually cheaper for visitors.

Let’s take a deeper look into these claims and assess their validity.

Visitors want to pay one uniform fee: This claim is misleading at best, disingenuous at worst. The announcement never mentions that the museum is currently free to enter (except for optional special exhibits and parking), and it implies that visitors are okay with this price hike because it combines special exhibit and parking costs. So, rather than keeping the bulk of the museum free and keeping the special exhibits an optional expenditure for those interested, visitors allegedly want everyone to pay an admittance fee because it’s more convenient that way…

The way an evaluation question is framed can do much to shape the possible answers a visitor provides. My suspicion, which I feel pretty confident in, is that the evaluation question that provided this result was probably worded along the lines of “If the IMA were to institute an admission fee, what would you consider a fair pricing structure?” You can easily see how a question like that suddenly leads to an announcement that says “visitors think the new price model is more fair.”

The new pricing model is cheaper for visitors: There is some justification to this argument. The current pricing model stipulates that an adult weekend visitor to the IMA’s special exhibit would have to pay $20 plus a $5 parking fee, whereas the new model combines both fees into its $18 admittance price. But of course the visitor who only wants to visit the free permanent and temporary exhibits now has to pay $18 as well, so we could ask: what percentage of visitors pay the current fee to enter the special exhibits?

The IMA maintains limited visitor use data online here, including attendance over the most recent two weeks (which is pictured above). The chart also distinguishes between the number of visitors who went through the entrance and the number of visitors who visited the special exhibition gallery. For the period between Tuesday, December 9 and Monday, December 22, 2014, 5,805 visitors out of a total of 13,176 visitors (44%) visited the special exhibit, which means that more than half of all visitors chose not to visit the special exhibit.

This sample is limited in numerous regards, obviously requiring a necessary margin for error. Different seasons bring out different attendance numbers and visitation patters; some of these December visitors may have been school groups who may or may not have visited the special exhibits; and we don’t know how many visitors had memberships that allowed them access without paying an addition fee for the special exhibit (although another online statistic indicates that only 6.58% of all visitors in 2008 were IMA members). We can tentatively conclude, however, that it’s pretty close to 50/50 in terms of visitors getting a cheaper deal with the current and future pricing models.

The new pricing model is in line with admittance fees to other Indianapolis cultural institutions: The $18 admittance fee is on the higher end of Indianapolis cultural institutions that charge a fee, making it more expensive that the Colonel Eli Lilly Civil War Museum, the Eitlejorg Museum, the Indiana State Museum (but not the “Total Museum” experience that includes an IMAX film showing), and a number of other places. And yes, it is cheaper than the Children’s Museum and the Zoo. But I think it’s mistaken to compare the art museum’s fees with other cultural museums in Indy rather than other art museums throughout the country, especially the Midwest. Art museums are not the same as children’s museums, history museums or science museums. Art, in my opinion, is a public good. As this article helpfully points out, public goods are defined as goods that, if provided for one, are provided for all in an accessible manner that excludes no one. Consuming art is not like purchasing tickets for an Indiana Pacers basketball game through a market that limits access and excludes people from a given commodity. The other types of museums can be justified as public goods too, but I think we get a more precise understanding of the value of an art museum visit if we draw comparisons to other art museums. Let’s take a look at the new IMA admittance fee (for adult individuals) compared to other Midwest art museums:

The Art Institute of Chicago: $23
Cedar Rapids Museum of Art: $5
Cincinnati Art Museum: Free
Cleveland Museum of Art: Free
Columbus [OH] Museum of Art: $12
Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis: Free
Des Moines Art Center: Free
Detroit Institute of Arts: $8
Dubuque Museum of Art: $6
Indianapolis Museum of Art: $18
Milwaukee Art Museum: $14
Minneapolis Institute of Arts: Free
Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago: $25
Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit: $5 suggested donation
Museum of Wisconsin Art: $12
Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art: Free
Rockford Art Museum: $7
Springfield [IL] Art Museum: Free
St. Louis Art Museum: Free

It’s clear that IMA will be on the high end of admittance fees for larger Midwest art museums.

The Huntington is an appropriate “model” for the IMA’s new price model: William Poundstone points out several problems with the IMA using the Huntington as a model for their new admittance fee. While the Huntington tripled its attendance and endowment after instituting an admittance fee ($20 adults on weekdays and $23 on weekends), that fee was implemented in 1996, thus this increase gradually took place over 18 years. 3 million additional residents have moved to LA since then, and the Huntington has grown since that time to include several gardens, a conservator, a wing dedicated to the history of science, and its American art gallery has tripled in size. In sum, the Huntington in California is on a completely different scale than the IMA in Indiana. Poundstone minced no words, arguing that “to imply that the Huntington’s admission fee had anything to do with increasing attendance or endowment gifts is like saying the Obama administration is responsible for beards, food trucks, and Iggy Azalea. Correlation doesn’t prove causation.”

Conclusion

Using my knowledge of evaluation practices, available online data about IMA visitation, and comparing IMA’s new admittance fees to similar Midwest museums, I have attempted to point out inconsistencies in the IMA’s justification for their price jump while at the same time acknowledging that the $18 fee may be cheaper for a decent number of visitors who want to see the special exhibition galleries. I think the new model will lend itself to more people purchasing memberships, but am skeptical of IMA’s ability to bring in new audiences or even attain its yearly attendance numbers in recent years due to this price change. I understand that the IMA is reliant upon memberships to help offset costs, and I think it’s more than fair to charge some sort of admittance fee for that purpose. That said, the jump from free to $18 is high – probably too high. Why not charge in the $5-$12 range instead? Finally, based on comments from friends in the area and from this article online, it appears that the IMA failed to properly communicate this policy change to the public before making plans to implement the new fees in April. That is unfortunate, and it raises questions about IMA’s willingness to communicate with the local community in a shared endeavor towards building a museum that fits the needs of residents while also meeting the bottom line.

What do you think?

Cheers

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6 responses

  1. Correlation NEVER proves Causation. That is a fact from the world of quantitative research. While I am certainly not an expert at the current moment, I do know a bit about the mechanics of this type of research study. The wording on a survey is huge. It can make or break a survey. You hit the nail right on the head by pointing out the wording issue. I would question this study and seek to see who conducted it.

    If the study was an internal one and not set up by a research professional who understood how to develop surveys as research instrumentation then they will have a set of skewed results. This is why institutions like to bring in outside consultants for studies like this. The consultants are experts in their fields of research, have little to no bias, no axe to grind, and while the answers may not be what the institution wants, at least the answers are honest and based upon factual evidence and are developed from instruments that do contain misleading and biased or results driven questions.

    That said, maybe this will work, but that seems like a quantum leap in admissions policy change.

    1. Thanks for commenting Jimmy,

      I agree with everything you’re saying here. I’m not sure whether or not their visitor research was conducted by an internal or external group, but I do know that the IMA has their eval team, so it could have been internal. The new admissions policy may work in the long run, but you wonder who currently visits the museum (or has been thinking about visiting) and will now decide to stay away because of the new prices.

  2. Hey Nick,

    I am happy to see that you are addressing the IMA’s announcement on your blog, and I think that you raised some very valid questions that will hopefully be answered as discussions continue in 2015 around this controversial move by the museum.

    One thing that I think your evaluation is missing is perhaps the most important piece – the financial. The most important (and most prominent) rationale that the IMA gave in its announcement was the need to “improve…financial sustainability.” I would love to hear your thoughts on how this proposed plan would or would not make a difference in that regard. The IMA does have a very significant endowment, but it has been overdrawn on in relatively recent years, which is not sustainable regardless of how large the endowment is. This move shows that the IMA sees introducing a general admission fee as a big component of reducing that draw. Lack of public funding (less than 1% of IMA annual operating costs are covered by public monies) necessitates other sources of funding be found, and the IMA believes that the general admission fees will become a better source for funding with this new model.

    I am still processing my feelings on this change, and I go back and forth every day. Ultimately, however this shakes out, my hope is that the IMA will continue to be financially stable for many many years to come (and obviously I have a very personal interest in that!). What are your thoughts on whether or not this new policy will or could indeed lead to long-term financial stability? If you had not wanted to get into this aspect of the admission change, I understand–your analysis of the audience engagement aspect of the IMA’s reasoning was a great read.

    At the very least, I do think it is valuable to point out that your price comparison of the IMA admission to similar Midwest museums is missing the important component of how each of the institutions listed meets their operational expenses each year–what percentage of those costs are covered by public funding or private donations specifically meant to subsidize admission costs indefinitely or for a fixed amount of time? And if there is a trend of free admission made possible by a public fund, then what sorts of discussions should Indianapolis and/or Indiana be having about the current state of funding for cultural institutions?

    Just some food for thought as I chew this one over myself…

    Sami

    P.S. I hope that St. Louis is treating you well!

    1. Hi Sami,

      It’s great to hear from you, and thanks so much for chiming in with a great comment. Let me try and address some of your thoughts and questions:

      – “The most important (and most prominent) rationale that the IMA gave in its announcement was the need to “improve…financial sustainability.” I would love to hear your thoughts on how this proposed plan would or would not make a difference in that regard. The IMA does have a very significant endowment, but it has been overdrawn on in relatively recent years, which is not sustainable regardless of how large the endowment is”

      I heard from a former professor of mine that used to work at IMA that the endowment has been chipped away for quite some time now, so I understand the need to find a more sustainable pricing model. I am hesitant to go beyond the vague predictions I make in the conclusion of this essay, so I will restate that I think an admission fee of some sort is more than fair, especially given the lack of public support for the museum. The new pricing model lends itself to an increase in memberships, which are a great deal if you plan to visit the museum at least three times a year with an individual membership and four times a year with a family membership. The model is also smart in that regard because it encourages members to become regular and repeat visitors to the museum’s collections. So the model could ultimately have a positive influence on the IMA’s long term financial stability, which is a good thing. My skepticism in this new admission fee is rooted in several different factors:

      1. Will non-traditional art museum visitors be compelled to visit the IMA and pay this admission fee?
      2. Will out-of-town visitors still choose to visit the IMA, or will they opt to go somewhere more affordable?
      3. Why $18?
      4. How will this new pricing model affect attendance numbers, and can IMA continue its attendance growth in the future? Who might be left out because of the price hike?

      – “I do think it is valuable to point out that your price comparison of the IMA admission to similar Midwest museums is missing the important component of how each of the institutions listed meets their operational expenses each year–what percentage of those costs are covered by public funding or private donations specifically meant to subsidize admission costs indefinitely or for a fixed amount of time?”

      This is a very good point that I should have considered. I don’t have a good answer to give, and it would take a lot of time to find that answer. At the very least it seems Indianapolis and/or Indiana could dive into a comparative study of public vs. private funds for art museums in others states and consider the merits of boosting funds to local art museums in some capacity, even if it’s a temporary fund to help expand the campus or get local school groups into the museum. From there I’d have to defer to someone with more knowledge of the IMA’s financial plans.

      Do you have any other thoughts on the IMA’s long-term financial plans? Thanks so much again for commenting and I look forward to hopefully visiting the IMA next time I’m in town.

      P.S. Everything in St. Louis is going well so far, although I get the feels for Indy every once in a while!

  3. I’ve always managed to park in the little parking lot on the side that is free and I rarely go to the special exhibits, so I’ve never paid a dime to visit the IMA. An $18 hike is significant for me, and I just don’t see myself going to the IMA after April. That makes me very sad, and I hope the IMA changes their mind.

    1. Hi there,

      Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. Sadly, I feel like you’re not the only one who usually visited only the free temporary and permanent exhibits and who might stop visiting IMA after April.

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