Archive for January, 2010

Ticket price as a barrier to access, Part 4: Membership on the installment plan

January 20, 2010

Picking up on a thought from Part 3: Why don’t museums offer the option of paying for membership in quarterly or monthly installments?

This would make memberships affordable to a much wider slice of the museum-going public. It’s much easier, financially and psychologically, to come up with $10 or $12 a month than $100 or $120 in a lump sum. 

Payment could occur during the course of the visit. Instead of shelling out an admission fee, members could simply top up their accounts at the membership desk on their way in. Members who didn’t top up within a certain period of time would simply have their membership cards deactivated. 

Installment memberships would help promote philanthropy, because a much larger pool of satisfied members could be cultivated as donors. 

And, it would send the important message that members of all ages, incomes, and types were welcome. Talk about psychological and emotional comfort. Of course, a significant segment of current membership would be made more uncomfortable. But I’m sure new levels of exclusivity would be invented in response. Elitism knows no bounds.

Potentially, installment plans could vastly increase museum membership. Downsides would be that administrative costs would rise, membership services departments would have more work to do, and members-only events would be much more heavily attended. On the other hand, there would be more membership fees available to support expanded services. 

Membership on the installment plan could help to democratize museums while increasing their annual incomes and expanding their donor bases. What’s not to like?

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Ticket price as a barrier to access, Part 3: notes and observations

January 7, 2010

One thing that struck me about almost all of the museums listed in Parts 1 and 2: the so-called senior (60 or 65 plus) price is less than general admission, and often the same as student/youth pricing. Senior discounts, which began during the 1960s and 70s when a disproportionate number of older Americans were below the poverty line, and/or living on fixed incomes in times of high inflation, have become sacrosanct. This, in spite of the fact that poverty demographics have now flipped around from those days:

Percent of Americans below poverty line, 2008

Under 18 … 19%

18-65 … 11.7%

65 + … 9.7%  (source: US Census)

Common sense would tell you that the museum visitors most in need of a break, generally speaking, would be parents with school-age children. True, family memberships can be a good deal, but that’s assuming a family can afford to pony up the membership price all at once. Again, this locks out poor would-be visitors, and those who are just kind of scraping by.

Another trend that struck me: every one of the science museums and aquariums in my little survey charges and arm and a leg for kids – even very young kids:

American Museum of Natural History (for special exhibitions, which take up about half the exhibit space): Children 2-12, $20

Boston Museum of Science: Child 3-11, $17

Shedd Aquarium: Children 3-11, $17.95

Museum of Science and Industry: Child 3-11, $9

Monterey Bay Aquarium: Child 3-12 $17.95

In contrast, most of the art museums let in children under 12 for free or cheap, and many have significant discounts for students. The art museums are more family-friendly these days than the science museums. 

This is all based on a small sample, yes, but it’s suggestive. 

Conclusions? I have none, really. Cost is only one factor that goes into leisure-time spending decisions — it won’t keep someone away from a museum if the benefits are perceived to be worth the price, and these museums are after all among the best in the country. Museums are taking it in the neck financially, and admission price is one way they can recoup. Nonetheless, I return to my original, anecdotal observation that free days bring a lot more people into museums, and a lot more people of seemingly limited means. Since the museum-going habit is formed in childhood, during family visits, I wonder if the next generation of museum-goers is being lost in the upward spiral of admission prices.

Ticket price as a barrier to access, part 2: Science museums

January 5, 2010

It’s no secret that museums as a whole are in financial difficulties; some institutions are in deep trouble, or on their way there. A typical — and understandable — response has been to raise admission fees. My question is whether, in doing so, museums are unwittingly imposing a significant barrier to visitor access. 

In Part 1 we looked at admission prices at eight leading art museums in the United States. Now let’s look at seven science centers and aquariums. As for the art museums, this is the estimated cost of admission for a family of four — two adults, one senior, one youth/student:

American Museum of Natural History: $108.50 (for special exhibitions, which take up a good deal of the exhibit space, and are heavily promoted; permanent exhibits are pay-what-you-will)

Boston Museum of Science: $75

Shedd Aquarium: $92.80

Museum of Science and Industry: $47

California Academy of Sciences: $84.80

Exploratorium: $48.00

Monterey Bay Aquarium: $105.80

Average price of admission, family of four: $80 (not including parking/transit, food, gift shop, etc.).

This is 30 dollars more than the average cost of an art museum visit — significant in that science centers are perceived to be more “family friendly” than art museums.

Some additional notes and observations in Part 3.