Over 61 million people visited art museums in the United States, Canada, and Mexico last year, according to a new survey released today by the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) that it plans to conduct annually. The survey (which is embedded at the end of this article) indicates that the association’s members’ institutions are, on the whole, stable in the wake of the global financial meltdown of 2008, according to AAMD Executive Director Chris Anagnos. “It reaffirms to me that museums are stable,” Anagnos told ARTnews in an interview. “I say this in a macro sense because each institution has challenges, but as a whole museums have weathered that storm.”
The survey covers a number of different areas, but the portion of it that points most clearly to a sound foundation is the one covering museums’ average sources of revenue and support, where a variety of funding sources shows that museums aren’t just relying on their endowments alone, or only on individual giving.
“What I found to be the most interesting result—and we say this on a regular basis at museums–is that museums get funding from variety of sources,” said Anagnos. “To have the numbers that show that is reassuring.” She also found it reassuring that the numbers for admissions (7 percent of revenue and support) and endowment (21 percent) had not changed greatly since a less comprehensive survey done by the organization in 2002.
Anagnos says the survey, the most comprehensive of its kind conducted by the nearly 100-year-old organization, is representative, as it covers the firm majority of the member institutions (220 AAMD museums across the United States, Canada, and Mexico out of the 234 total membership at the time of data collection). It provides, Anagnos said, a snapshot of “the whole ecosystem of our membership.” The AAMD, she added, has been collecting similar data since the 1980s but “in an analogue way.” A new survey tool allowed members to do the benchmarking that was needed.
The survey puts numbers next to things that the museum community has long known anecdotally and from individual institutional reporting—for instance, that corporate donations have been low. “We’ve heard that corporate contributions are dying off, that corporations aren’t giving as much money to the arts as they had in the past,” said Anagnos, “and that number is quite small. I would have expected bigger than 4 percent. And corporate memberships are only 1 percent.”
Another point the survey hammers home is the small percentage that, on average, admissions contribute. The blockbuster effect—and the fact that museum attendance has been up in recent years—can lend to a misperception that it is a major contributor to museums’ bottom line. (New York museums—where MoMA, for instance, charges $25 a head—are an exception to the rule, in that they do tend to bring in significant sums from admissions.)
The survey showed that of those attending museums last year, 1.9 million were members. Anagnos says that number struck her as high, and an indication of “institutions engaging their communities.”
The core audience for the new survey includes AAMD members like Brian Ferriso, director of the Portland Art Museum, who was director of the AAMD’s public affairs committee when the organization started the survey several years ago. “It was an important moment when we felt we needed data to support our messages and our anecdotal observations,” he told ARTnews.
“When I look at my institution compared to this aggregated information, I can see its weaknesses. That’s very helpful. It gives us a baseline to evaluate our business model and situation.”
“That graphic is really powerful,” Ferriso said of the one showing average sources of revenue and support. “We talk about diversification of revenue and operating support. That graphic says it beautifully. You have to have a little bit of everything, and some of them have to be within a certain range, or you are putting too much pressure on another category which usually can’t make it up, and then you start cutting corners.”
Ferriso says that as museums have grown in popularity over the past 20 years and become more complex organizations with high overhead costs, such aggregated data helps museum leaders understand the field as a whole. “I’m of a generation–I’m in my 40s–and my peers (I think of Kaywin Feldman at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Brian Kennedy at the Toledo Museum of Art, Julián Zugazagoitia at the Nelson Atkins, Christoph Heinrich at the Denver Art Museum) in the conversations I’ve had with them over the past 10 years, we’ve all thought about data,” Ferriso said. “But now we are a point where we are able to use it in a much more aggregated and effective way because we’ve pooled our resources. We are not in isolation anymore. Data is important, data is critical. It’s not just a nice thing to have. It’s essential.”
A striking portion of the survey shows that, while each visitor brings an average of around $8 in revenue to museums (between admission tickets and other purchases, at shops and restaurants), museums spend $53 per visitor on average. “There are board members and donors who need to understand [this],” Ferriso said. “We rely on donations. A museum needs to be underwritten by the community. That needs to be told. The fear and challenge for many of us is we are seen to play more of an entertainment function versus [being] an essential part of a community and an essential part of a city and state. We need to be seen as more like libraries rather than movie theaters.”
Ultimately, collecting this same data year over year will help the AAMD to tell a story and identify trends. It will also, Anagnos hopes, help to provide greater transparency to the field, one of her goals of since she became executive director in 2010. “We can talk about our field more often,” she said. “The good, the bad, and the ugly.”