February 26, 2010

Better news about museum attendance

This morning the American Association of Museums released the findings of its new Survey of Museum Attendance and Finances, which showed fairly widespread gains in visitorship in '09. This further complicates the picture painted by other recent studies.

AAM surveyed its member museums last month to learn, among other things, how attendance had fared in '09 compared to '08. (Full disclosure: I’m on the advisory council for AAM’s Center for the Future of Museums.) More than half (57%) of museums reported an increase, and the good news extended across most museum categories, from art to history. A whopping 81% of science and technology centers reported an increase, which makes sense given the importance of family time and entertainment during economic downturns. (We don’t know how much of the growth in this category came at the IMAX box office. Hollywood itself had a record year, at least in terms of revenue.) Yet the category that includes zoos, aquariums, nature centers, and botanic gardens — many of which also serve that family, infotainment-seeking audience — was the least likely to report gains, with only 50% saying visitation had increased. Go figure.

Some relationships that caught my eye:

  • Museums that offer free admission were more likely to report increased attendance than ones that charge (67% vs. 55%). This puts another arrow in the quiver of advocates for free museums. Interestingly, museums with suggested admission fees performed the same as ones that charge a fixed amount, perhaps because, in practice, suggested policies often look and feel a lot like mandatory ones. (Not incidentally, more museums are charging now than in '08.) 

  • Larger museums were more likely to feel economically stressed than smaller ones. This makes sense because large museums tend to have larger endowments that they’ve traditionally relied on, and investment income was the hardest-hit source of revenue (followed by corporate and government support…all of which affirms the conclusion from our first CultureQ dialogue). 

  • Museums in New England were most likely to feel that economic stress, and museums in the Mountain and Plains states were least likely. This one is murkier: I’m guessing it has to do with economic factors, population shifts, and museum-specific factors such as the geographic distribution of larger-budget museums and museums that have expanded during the building boom of the last two decades.

AAM’s numbers are in sync with a much smaller but widely-reported survey of art museums conducted by the Art Newspaper and published in December, in which two-thirds of art museums reported attendance gains — especially museums of modern and contemporary art. That study asked about changes over a three-year period, which hints that AAM’s new numbers may not be merely a short-term uptick from '08 to '09; they may be part of a trend.

But all this runs counter to the gloomy figures provided recently by the NEA’s Survey of Public Participation in the Arts and the new National Arts Index from Americans for the Arts. The NEA’s findings and some of the NAI’s metrics come from surveys of individual consumers, which is very different from asking museum professionals to report their institution’s figures, as AAM and the Art Newspaper did. So both types of data could be right: individual consumers may be, on average, less likely to visit museums, but those who do visit may be attending more often (as the NEA data in fact suggests); and the growth of America's college-educated population could be offsetting, in raw numbers, the declining percentage of attenders within that population. If so, the result would be just what we see: individual museums bustling while policy researchers raise warning flags.

I’m speculating wildly here. How do you read the discrepancy? Which way do you think the needle is pointing?

In any case, AAM has done the museum field and the broader cultural community a real service by making this information public. Many trade associations treat such institutional data as proprietary to their members, which limits the usefulness of the research to the field. Of course, today's numbers are fairly impressive and certainly useful from an advocacy perspective (the report’s first paragraph concludes that “museums have become increasingly important to the communities they serve”). It remains to be seen if AAM will have the courage to release the equivalent figures in a year when public support for museums has flagged.

I do have a nagging problem with the survey’s response rate, which was about 21% — not unusually low for market research, but not great for policy conclusions because that other 79% of museums may or may not look like the responding sample. One of the response biases that could be hiding here has to do with the possibility that museums with good news to report are more likely to fill out the survey, which would make these numbers rosier than they ought to be.

And of course this is basic directional information (did your museum's attendance rise, fall, or stay the same?) rather than detailed attendance data that can be subjected to deeper analysis.

But still, it's an important contribution to the dialogue about the state of the cultural sector. Numbers matter, and we don't have enough of them. Plus it’s a short, readable report, for which we can be grateful in an era of hundred-page, foundation-funded tomes. Let me know how it strikes you.

Nina Simon — February 26, 2010

I agree 100% with your comment: "One of the response biases that could be hiding here has to do with the possibility that museums with good news to report are more likely to fill out the survey, which would make these numbers rosier than they ought to be."

I am very suspicious of this data. It was entirely opt-in, and only 21% of the institutions chose to do so. There are much stronger incentives to participate if you have something to brag about than something negative to report--especially when it's about yourself.

There have been some interesting studies of why books on Amazon tend to be so highly rated--mostly 4 or 5 stars--with the results coming back that the vast majority of people who choose to rate products are those who love them (or in a few cases, who hate them). And those are external objects! It's hard for me to imagine this wouldn't accentuated for people writing about themselves and their own institutions.

Nina Simon — February 26, 2010

Plus, institutions that closed in the last year are decidedly not responders--and I've been hearing a lot more about that in the past year than in years past.

The report _is_ readable and I'm grateful for it, but I take the results with a handful of salt.

Ford W. Bell — February 26, 2010

The data are completely in synch with my unscientific observations, accumulated during some 75,000 miles of museum travel in 2009. Everywhere I went, with very few exceptions, museum professionals from a wide array of institutions, told me that attendance was "up" to "way up." It seemed counterintuitive to me at the time, but I think the phenomenon is real.

Phil Katz — February 26, 2010

Thanks for the thoughtful discussion of this small report, Peter. This is the type of discussion we hoped to inspire. Nina raises a very good point (i.e., people are more likely to share good news), but here is a counter: people facing hard times also like to share the pain, especially if they can explain the pain in a concrete way (e.g., "the county eliminated our funding, the museum is now closed five days a week, so we had fewer visitors"). I saw those kinds of comments in the open-ended responses to the survey. I don't have enough evidence to say which pyschological instinct prevailed -- I suspect it was a wash -- and I stand behind the results. Next time we'll work harder on the response rate, but I'm happy with the statistical precision of this snapshot.

Peter Linett — February 28, 2010

Nina, thanks for the reference to Amazon's ratings skews. That's exactly the problem with convenience samples, which in most circumstances are biased toward both the positive and negative ends of the spectrum because the enthusiasts and the disgruntled tend to fill them out.

It does make sense, Phil, that there would also be that countervailing impulse: misery loves company. And higher response rates are just more expensive. (Maybe a foundation will kick in next time to support the cause of audience empiricism.)

And Ford, I have no doubt that there's something real underlying both this data and your peripatetic sampling last year. As a researcher, though, it's my job to be critical about methods and findings...including our own. Thanks to all of your for commenting.

Anne Arenstein — March 02, 2010

My museum had one of its highest attendance figures last year, due to the Fasion in Film exhibition. But after it closed last March, the numbers plummeted, so we are constantly seeking ways to promote the collection, our programs, our cafe, the shop....

Steven Beck — July 20, 2010

I'm curious about the attendance figures comparing museums who commemorate, or display controversial issues (human cadaver, sex exhibits, etc.) to those museums who stayed away from such displays? Anyone have any data?

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