Report shows art museums rely mainly on kindness, not commerce

A new financial survey of North American museums shows that visitors' spending covers a small fraction of museums' operating costs. Pictured: the Getty Center in Brentwood.
A new financial survey of North American museums shows that visitors’ spending covers a small fraction of museums’ operating costs. Pictured: the Getty Center in Brentwood.
(Robbin Goddard/Los Angeles Times)

A new survey of North American art museums’ attendance and financial information confirms once more that if they had to operate like for-profit businesses and rely on a paying public, they almost certainly would be sunk.

To make ends meet, the average art museum counted overwhelmingly on the kindness of donors, government largess and, if it was lucky enough to have an ample one, returns on its endowment, according to responses the Assn. of Art Museum Directors gathered from 220 of its 236 member museums.

The AAMD issued the findings this week in a brief report called “Art Museums by the Numbers 2014,” based on responses from 204 museums in the United States and 16 in Canada and Mexico that provided figures for their most recently completed fiscal year.


The average art museum in North America saw 279,351 visitors pass through its doors in a year, with total attendance coming to more than 67 million.

But they weren’t able -- or inclined -- to reach deeply into the pockets of all that foot traffic. When it came to earning money by selling admission tickets, parking spaces, refreshments and gift shop merchandise to visitors, or by renting facilities, the survey results suggest that art museums simply are not in step with the capitalist imperative.

Only 27% of the money that museums took in was earned in those ways. For the rest they depended on private donations, endowment returns and government funding.

Private donors, including corporations, foundations, individual givers and people who took out museum memberships or paid to attend fundraising events, provided a third of the surveyed museums’ income. Government appropriations accounted for an additional 18% (although some institutions got nothing), and museums’ endowments generated 21% of their money. Endowments are investment funds built primarily on donations that are socked away and kept unspent; the spendable income comes from investment gains from that permanent nest egg.

The survey’s findings about museums’ inability to tap visitors’ wallets may get a rise from those who bemoan the sometimes considerable price of admission at certain big city museums. At the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, for example, a couple who buy tickets that include admission to both the permanent collection and the temporary exhibitions will pay $25 each, and if they park in the museum garage, the cost rises to $62 for two.

But the AAMD, a New York-based service organization for nonprofit art museums that also establishes and promotes ethical guidelines for the field, found that the average visitor to a North American art museum shells out just $3.70 for admission and an additional $4.23 at a museum’s gift shop and food concessions, for a total of $7.93 per visit.

“I wouldn’t say [it’s] an issue,” Christine Anagnos, the AAMD’s executive director, wrote in an email response to a question about whether the field is concerned about its meager sales revenue and its heavy reliance on donations. “Art museums are very much committed to providing services that go well beyond the actual price of admission, so it’s important for museums to have … diverse sources of revenue” such as private donations and government support.

One factor keeping the average art museum admission fee down -- and pushing attendance up -- is that, for a growing number of them, there is no fee. Free admission is a policy for some museums. L.A.’s Hammer Museum last year rescinded its $10 admission price, joining the Getty Museum (although the Getty’s $15 parking charge for an essentially captive audience generates some complaints). The downtown Broad museum expected to open in L.A. in the fall will also be free.

Even museums with admission fees customarily offer opportunities to get in free at regular intervals during a week or month. That includes LACMA, which in addition to its regular free hours has a special program called NexGen that offers free general admission at all times to anyone under 18, as well as an accompanying adult.

Doing some math with attendance, cost-per-visitor and income figures reported by the AAMD, it turns out that the 220 museums in the survey collectively induced the art-loving public to fork over $487.4 million in admissions and food-and-merchandise purchases, or about $2.2 million per museum. That covered just 15% of the average museum’s expenses, which came to about $14.8 million.

Those dollar averages are skewed drastically upward by a relatively small group of very large institutions with budgets in the tens or hundreds of millions. It’s comparable to what the 1% do to statistics on Americans’ average earnings and household wealth.

In Los Angeles, for example, the only art museums that consistently spend $14.8 million a year or more are the Getty, LACMA, Hammer and Museum of Contemporary Art. The Broad may join the club; the art division of the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino cost $10.3 million in 2012-13, according to its most recent audited financial statement. Art museums in Orange and Riverside counties spend far less than the $14.8-million average.

To show what it takes to run a museum -- and to illustrate how little of it comes from earned income -- the AAMD reported that, on average, each visitor who came through the door cost a museum $53.17 in expenses, dwarfing the $7.93 it got back from admission and food and museum store purchases.

Whether art museums should use visitation as a measure of the cost of doing business might be debatable. For one thing, a good deal of that $53.17 figure is spent behind the scenes, paying for collection storage, art conservation and research, administration, cultivating those all-important donors and paying experts for advice on how to invest those very important endowments.

Regardless how the expenses are characterized, giving visitors worthwhile art to see is, ultimately, the point. To that end, the surveyed museums reported collectively acquiring 86,010 new works in 2013-14, building the aggregate art trove they hold for today’s public and for posterity to 13,329,116 objects.

The average museum was able to buy 55 new works for its collection and received an additional 336 as gifts.

Follow @boehmm of the LA Times for arts news and features