There have been several recent blog posts (Know Your Own Bone*, Hyperallergic) that question the impact of free admission on museum attendance and provide a comparison of the BMA’s attendance between 1997 and 2014 as an example of why free admission is not effective in driving audiences. The BMA is very interested in these questions and the data that has been gathered on this issue. Unfortunately, the attendance figures being used to represent the BMA have been taken out of context and don’t provide an accurate representation of our experience since we became free in 2006. (*NOTE: After this blog was published, Know Your Own Bone revised its original statement to add more context.)
In the mid-1990s when annual attendance was over 300,000, the BMA was hosting major exhibitions on Alexander Calder, Dale Chihuly, Andrew Wyeth, as well as treasures from the Victoria and Albert Museum that proved to be very popular with audiences. In 2000, the BMA began focusing more on building recognition of the Museum’s great collection and showcasing new scholarship from our talented curators. This resulted in several nationally travelling exhibitions which, while not blockbusters, attracted thousands of visitors to Baltimore, as well as to museums across the country from New Jersey to Florida and California to Arizona.
When the BMA and Walters Art Museum launched free admission in 2006, the goal of eliminating admission fees was to make the world-renowned collections of both museums more accessible to audiences with limited financial means—from families and seniors to students and teachers. The BMA earned approximately 2% of its operating budget from admission revenue and recognized from the free programs we offered at the time that we could better serve Baltimore’s diverse populations without it. The BMA experienced an extraordinary increase in participation in family programs as a result of free admission that has continued to this day. New research on the Museum’s visitors shows that the mean age has decreased from age 56 to 44 and there are many more African/African-American and Asian/Asian-American visitors than before 2006, though we can’t attribute those results entirely to free admission.
The multi-year renovation that began in 2011 has had a far greater impact on the BMA’s attendance than anything else. We dramatically transformed galleries for the Museum’s contemporary, American, African, and Asian art collections to much acclaim, reopened the historic front entrance, and greatly improved visitor amenities. We kept the Museum open to serve our visitors during this time, but attendance necessarily decreased below 200,000 visitors in 2014, when 60% of the building was closed for the renovation and we couldn’t offer as many exhibitions, programs, or school tours.
We anticipate post-renovation attendance will continue to increase as it has since the spring reopening of the African and Asian art galleries. We are also looking forward to the completion of the renovation in October 2015 and the many exciting and thought-provoking exhibitions we will be presenting this fall and next year.