How Free Admission Really Affects Museum Attendance (DATA)

Free Admission is not a Driver of Museum Attendance or Engaging New Audiences (DATA)

Spoiler alert: It doesn’t much…and misunderstanding this engagement tactic may jeopardize industry sustainability.

The debate about whether museums should be free is a big one right now. It’s the source of a lot of discussion in the popular press and nonprofit boardrooms alike. What seems to be lost in this discussion are due consideration of two very important factors: First, does eliminating the cost of admission actually help engage underserved audiences? And, second, in a time marked by increasing austerity measures that threaten traditional cultural funding, is eliminating a key earned revenue source sustainable as a long-term business model? The truth is that free admission comes with a cost. Free admission is far from the engagement cure-all that some of its supporters believe it to be.

Am I suggesting that free admission to museums and other cultural organizations is an altogether bad idea? Of course not. For those organizations whose financial models depend less on earned revenues (i.e. those with mega endowments or significant public funding), free admission may prove viable. However, for those organizations whose mission delivery depends on their business viability, then the issue of free admission is a far more complex topic.

Certainly, varying perspectives and important considerations inform this broader conversation, but I’m going to stick to the facts regarding only one aspect of this big issue. For the sake of facilitating intelligent, data-informed conversation about an emotional topic, let’s acknowledge some established facts regarding admission pricing and attendance: 


1) Not everyone is interested in visiting museums- and admission price is NOT the primary barrier to engagement

This is a fact that data folks know well, but it’s one that we often overlook as an industry. At IMPACTS, we gather a lot of information on the general public, but we focus particularly on high-propensity visitors (those people who demonstrate the demographic, psychographic and behavioral attributes that indicate an increased likelihood of visiting a cultural organization). These are the people who actually go to museums and cultural organizations. They are the people who say, “Yeah! I’d like to do that!” when the suggestion of visiting a museum emerges. Not everyone is a high-propensity visitor – not by a long shot. In spite of all of our best engagement and marketing efforts, some people simply aren’t going to visit our organizations for several different reasons. As it turns out, admission fees are generally not a major factor in their lack of inclination to visit a museum.

Volker Kirchberg’s landmark analysis, “Entrance Fees as a Subjective Barrier to Visiting Museums,” published in the Journal of Cultural Economics, found that admission cost is a secondary factor when considering a museum visit. A lack of time (i.e. schedule considerations) or a simple lack of interest (i.e. relevance) were far more important factors in one’s decision not to visit a museum than were admission fees. In other words, a decision not to visit a museum is often more a function of lifestyle than finances.

When we consider the population subset of high-propensity visitors (HPVs) – our most likely audiences – cost absolutely pales in comparison to schedule and reputation when it comes to factors influencing their discretionary leisure activities. A big contributor to this often-overlooked fact is that, for both the general public and high-propensity visitors in particular, their time is more important than their money. This data from IMPACTS shows this well:

IMPACTS HPV time verses money

Need even more supporting analysis? According to national survey of museum visitors in New Zealand (Ministry for Culture and Heritage, New Zealand, A Measure of Culture: Cultural experiences and cultural spending in New Zealand), convenience and time are more important factors than cost when it comes to considering a cultural experience. The study further revealed that for those persons who visit museums but are unable to visit more often, the main barriers are lack of time (54%), travel distance (30%), and a lack of transportation (15%). For those who had not visited at all, the main barriers were lack of time (49%), travel distance (29%), and a lack of transport (18%). In fact, for both visitors and non-visitors, cost was only cited as a factor 11% of the time – again, this finding doesn’t diminish cost as a factor…but it does lend perspective to its relative importance in the public’s decision-making process.

Similar results were found in the Visitors to Museums and Galleries Study published in the UK by The Council for Museums, Libraries, and Archives. 32% cited a lack of time as a primary barrier, 22% a lack of interest, 19% a lack of anything they want to see, and 11% noted difficulties simply getting to the site of the organization. Only 8% of those sampled cited admission charges as a negative factor.

In sum: Admission fees are generally not a primary visitation barrier.


2) Free admission does not significantly affect long-term attendance.

Admission price doesn’t significantly change intentions to visit for first-time visitors – further reaffirming that if an audience isn’t interested or doesn’t have the time, then “free” won’t get them in the door. There seems to be a sort of thought that free admission means that attendance numbers will go through the roof…and, if an organization does experience a short-term “novelty” spike, then this increase will be sustained. Again, data suggest the contrary. Check out this data from the National Awareness, Attitudes and Usage Study of Visitor-Serving Organizations (which is updated annually and has tracked the opinions, perceptions, and behaviors of a sample population totaling 98,000 US adults):

IMPACTS intent to visit by admission price

The data indicate that intentions to visit within any duration do not significantly increase as the price of admission decreases or is even eliminated. In fact, in most instances, audiences indicate greater intentions to visit organizations that charge more than $20 for an adult admission than those that are free.

It doesn’t stop there. The definitive work on the (negligible) impact of admission price on sustained museum visitation was published by noted economists William Luksetich and Mark Partridge in Applied Economics in their analysis, “Demand Functions for Museums Services.” Their study suggests that the adverse effects of admission charges on attendance are small and ”relatively easy to alleviate.”

That, “If it’s not free, people won’t go” argument? The data has spoken. It’s not a thing.


3) Free admission accelerates re-visitation- but for audiences who are already visiting

Free admission does accelerate the re-visitation process – but mostly from existing audience members. This finding is from a study by the UK’s Department of Culture, Media, and Sport (DCMS) – whose members instituted free admission in year 2001. The DCMS study found that attendance increases frequently attributed to removing admission fees were often due to the same audiences visiting more frequently – NOT necessarily from engaging new audiences.

Basically, to the degree that organizations consider an attendance increase as a successful outcome of eliminating admission pricing, the key visitor count to examine isn’t total visitation – it’s unique visitation. For example: Let’s say that a museum with an admission fee receives 400,000 annual visits from 300,000 unique visitors (1.33 visits per unique visitor).  Then, the same museum decides to “go free” and annual attendance increases by 15% to 460,000 visitors – but from the same 300,000 unique visitors (1.53 visitors per unique visitors). In this hypothetical example, annual attendance went up…but unique visitation remained the same.

Again, data from the National Awareness, Attitudes and Usage Study of Visitor-Serving Organizations reaffirms this finding:

IMPACTS intent to revisit by admission price

Whereas free admission does not impact intentions to visit for first-time visitors, it does increase intentions to re-visit for existing audiences. The implication? It may not be wholly accurate for an organization to declare success by citing raw attendance numbers as proof of the efficacy of a free admission policy. There isn’t evidence that free admission generally cultivates increased visitation from new audiences. 


4) We need to engage emerging audiences- and free admission is not a cure-all for greater industry challenges

Data suggest that cultural organizations need to be reaching new audiences right now if we want these types of organizations to be around in the future. Offering free admission in an attempt to appeal to emerging audiences isn’t a complete solution to a more complex problem. We need to reevaluate our strategy for engaging new audiences because the “free admission” fix may not prove sustainable. Moreover, focusing on free general admission may be distracting organizations from cultivating more effective engagement strategies and programs for reaching new audiences.

Consider that Smithsonian Institute museums – without admission fees – saw total attendance decline by nearly 7% from 30 million visitors in years 2012 and 2013 to 28 million visitors in year 2014. In the same duration, the US population increased from 314 million (2012) to 319 million (2014). Also, in the same duration, overseas visits to the US increased from 29.8 million in 2012 to 34.4 million in 2014. Visitation to many museums – even world-famous, free museums – is not keeping pace with population growth.

Our industry is rife with examples of how even organizations with free admission are unable to cultivate increased (or, in many cases, even stable) attendance levels – particularly when considered in the prevailing context of overall population growth and travel to the United States. Free admission does not serve as engagement panacea. For example, In 1997, attendance at the Baltimore Museum of Art – then with an admission basis – approximated 320,000 annually. In 2006, the Baltimore Museum of Art eliminated admission charges. Today, onsite annual attendance is down 44% to 180,000. The organization attributes this decrease in attendance to the BMA’s recent renovation project. There are many factors that affect attendance and admission pricing is hardly the cure-all that many imagine it to be.


This data simply scratches the surface of this controversial debate. There are other, incredibly important factors to consider: individual business models, the impacts of increased reliance on contributed revenues and government funding, opportunities to develop more agile operations so as to allow museums to be more audience-focused, and even the reputational equities attendant to being a “free” organization versus one with an admission fee.

One thing is for sure: Critical conversations are taking place and organizations are realizing that it’s time to evolve both their engagement models and their financial plans. We have too much to lose not to move forward in the most fully-informed manner possible. If we want to keep museums alive, we need to think about engagement, audience motivations and barriers, and actual economics.


Like this post? Here are a few related posts from Know Your Own Bone that you might also enjoy:


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Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Financial Solvency, IMPACTS Data, Myth Busting, Sector Evolution, Trends 27 Comments

About the author

Colleen Dilenschneider

MPA. Chief Market Engagement Officer at IMPACTS Research & Development. Nonprofit marketer, Generation Y museum, zoo & aquarium writer/speaker, web engagement geek, data nerd, marathoner, nomad, herbivore

27 Responses to How Free Admission Really Affects Museum Attendance (DATA)

  1. C. Kingston

    Ha! We just posted on the same subject in different contexts.

    Here is a thought that perhaps needs addressing. Not all of us raising kids have additional income for field trips to galleries and museums. And as a teen, any spending money I had went to other things but with free admission I developed a relationship that wouldn’t happen for all kids/teens but…if we are not presenting museums and galleries in our kids lives as places of interest, learning, entertainment, wonder, then when they get older will they pay for admission? Will they advocate and lobby for governments who support culture?? Will they care when heritage and culture begin literally falling into disrepair? Introducing them early is a key and many families can not do that with high admission prices and schools have reduced field trips all together so where does that leave them and us?

    • Colleen Dilenschneider

      Indeed, this is a big, vast topic and your points are important considerations! Yes- effective access programs that engage new and emerging audiences (like kids, as you mention) is critical for industry sustainability. So is a sustainable business model – which may look different for different organizations based upon endowments and government funding, etc. A smart museum will have a sustainable business model that can ensure that the museum is financially solvent and may keep its doors open for years to come- and ALSO provides effective access programming that aids the organization in serving its social mission of inspiring and educating audiences. Thanks for sharing this important point!

  2. Kris Bergquist

    I think one of the aspects about free that’s puzzling for museums is that free days and free programs seem to increase numbers, often to a huge degree. And, oftentimes that audience is filled with a large number of first-time visitors. So, why wouldn’t free admission have the same effect? It’s interesting to see this data – thanks for the post.

    • Colleen Dilenschneider

      Great note, Kris. Thanks for your important comment. One of the data points that we note in onsite audience research efforts is that the average household income often is higher on free days than on paid days. This finding may suggest that free days are not necessarily engaging underserved audiences. The other item to note is that occasional free days often generate enormous publicity – these free days function as more like promotions than access programs. This publicity may help engage first-time visitors, and generate a temporary visitation spike. There is evidence that “free” promotions can help spike attendance – but less data to indicate that they are a sustainable engagement tactic as a permanent policy.

      • keri

        I think the Free = Publicity thing is spot on. A few years ago, we found that attendance on our free day each week was in a steady decline, so when the sponsor changed their terms, we discontinued the free admission day. Attendance did not suffer for it! When we reintroduced the free day a few months later on a different evening instead of a full day, we ran it as a promotional tool and saw attendance increase all around with distinct groups of people who said “we heard about the free day, but can’t make it then”.

        Our attendance numbers have been growing since 2013, but the free evening numbers have remained steady after the initial growth. So it’s clear that these free evenings aren’t driving attendance themselves, but are only one of several ways that we are getting the word out about what we offer.

      • Colleen Dilenschneider

        This is terrific insight – thanks so much for sharing it, Keri!

  3. Rebecca

    All of this needs to be set within the museum’s context of course. If you are more likely to gather a walk-in audience based on your location, then moving to free admission (with donation ask) will very much increase both your visitation and the bottom dollar line in the donation box (versus traditional admission revenues). That is likely not the case when your museum requires an intentional visit instead of a “stumbled into it” audience which is unlikely to stumble in if they need to pay. They are however likely to leave a donation should they enjoy their time.

    • Colleen Dilenschneider

      Hi, Rebecca. I’m not sure that I follow… May I please ask you the favor of further clarifying your comment?

      • Lauren Wilson

        Rebecca is saying she thinks that location is a moderating factor– if visitors are likely to “stumble in” (a.k.a. an impulse visit because they are already physically there) free admission would drive more to actually stay and check things out. She thinks visitation rates for museums where visitors make the intentional effort to travel to the location will see less of an impact from free admission.

        I think this is certainly a knotty issue that would take a lot to simplified to “there’s no big difference.” I take your point that free days are often serving higher income visitors, but am curious if that is simply a measure of having attracted more from the pool of high propensity visitors. I completely agree that time is more important than money for most all people, so the real argument here is, how do we make sure the museum provides and showcases the value it contributes to a broader base of individuals? Besides lowered price, what do you think museums can do to adequately serve the needs of people who are NOT likely to visit museums– e.g. low levels of education, low income, low resource– arguably the people who could benefit from informal education the most?

  4. Heather Reiffer

    I once worked with a fundraising consultant who advocated that our museum charge admission to create a “perceived value” for the experience. In that case it worked. Prior to establishing an admission fee, we had a very much ignored donation box. With the admission, we suddenly had actual income. Very rarely was the admission a “deal breaker.” What is frustrating is that when other museums start to offer free admission, it puts pressure on ones that don’t, and creates a public expectation of free admission. Some organization budgets simply can’t support that as long as there is no other source of income. Business plans would have to be profoundly reworked in some cases!

    • Colleen Dilenschneider

      Thanks for sharing this, Heather!

  5. Anne Bergeron

    Thank you, Colleen, for this thoughtful post. As someone who helped a prominent museum transition its business model to free admission, I agree that community context is everything. This approach may be right for some, wrong for others. Community listening, data analysis and planning are key. There are myriad ways to engage community, and on-site attendance is only one of them.

  6. Nicholas

    I would love to know how this data relates to museums and institutions that offer one free day a month or something similar. I know quite a few places that charge a regular admission but then offer a free day on the first Sunday of the month or something similar. Perhaps that is a best of both worlds situation? Or perhaps it detracts from unique attendance and admission revenue?
    Either way, great post!

    • Colleen Dilenschneider

      Thanks for your kind words, Nicholas. The analysis focuses on organizations that have eliminated admission as a policy – not those that offer occasional promotion or access-related programs (e.g. community days, etc). We have a good bit of data on “free days”- and that’s a great idea for a future post. Check back!

  7. Brooke

    I work for a Museum that has free admission and find this discussion really intriguing. We are a small local history museum, but we do a ton of public programming and are constantly worried that no one will show up. I think some valid points are made in regard to the value that “free” actually holds to the visitor. Many of us think “who wouldn’t come to a quality, free event,” and surprisingly the answer is not as many as you would think. And someone touched on this above, but the people who attend are often not the visitor your advocating free admission for. This is a fascinating topic that I hope more research is done on, so Museums can survive and know that they are reaching more people.

  8. Nick Poole

    Great post and really useful food for thought! I have a couple of concerns though – firstly, on a methodological note, the post sets out to make a particular point and marshals statistics and references that affirm this point. There is evidence from the experience of museums that admission levels drop very significantly after applying admission fees (although of course based on the Times paywall experience, 5000 paying customers is better than 50,000 non-paying ones).

    Also, the data is based predominantly on intentionality – what people say they intend to do and what they do are different things. Even if the data concerning the relatively low impact of admission fees on the planning decision is true, the impact on walk-in trade (which accounts for a lot of museum business) is still very significant.

    Finally, much of the debate on admission charging in UK museums misses the broader political point, which is that free admission has been a mainstay of cultural policy for most of the past 15 years, affording us an opportunity to raise our profile with politicians. Opening the door to the Government washing it’s hands of free admission without a very clear strategy for moving to self-funded business models would spell disaster for many museums.

    • Colleen Dilenschneider

      Great points. My aim wasn’t to present a particular point of view. Instead, my goal was to share data and analysis to more fully inform the thought processes of organizations contemplating various admission policies. In particular, the focus of the analysis is on long-term sustainability – not necessarily volume of visitation. As you point out, there are examples of attendance dropping after admission fees are applied (i.e. going from free to paid) – but the analysis dealt primarily with organizations eliminating admission fees (i.e. going from paid to free).

      Your points about cultural policies and norms in the UK (and, for that matter, other European countries) is well-taken. In general, Europeans pay higher effective personal income tax rates and a greater portion of these taxes support arts and the culture than is the case in the US. In my mind, that’s one of the dangers of US-based organizations transitively applying European-bred policies – it’s not necessarily an “apples-apples” comparison. Overall, the points that I hope that the data and analysis support is that “free” is a not cure-all for engagement challenges, and that there is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Many considerations – finances, business models, cultural precedent, government funding, etc. – factor into admission pricing policies.

  9. Amanda Krantz

    Thanks for this post! Regarding the Baltimore Museum of Art, they have had significant renovations over the last few years, which is important context for their current annual attendance.

    • Colleen Dilenschneider

      Hi Amanda. I added a line that BMA attributes this attendance decline to the renovation project. I think that decline fits the point nicely that free admission is far from a cure-all.

  10. Jessica Heimberg

    Extremely interesting topic — thank you for this latest research and discussion. I would also echo Anne Bergeron’s point that context is key.

  11. Amanda

    There is a lot of food for thought here, but I do have a criticism: one significant factor that affects annual attendance at any museum is that year’s special exhibitions. What were the big exhibitions at the BMA in 1997? What were they in the most recent year? Blockbuster exhibitions with well-known artists can cause significant spikes in attendance figures. We really need to see multiple years of figures before definitively saying that any museum has an downward attendance trend.

    • Colleen Dilenschneider

      Hi Amanda. I don’t know the specific exhibition schedule for the BMA in 1997 – but I do know that the observed attendance decline has been a trend. The context of the data and analysis relates primarily to long-term sustainability, and, a similar body of evidence suggests that “blockbuster-type” special exhibits are increasingly less sustainable as a business model. In other words, while blockbuster special exhibits and free admission may generate publicity and, in turn, generate a short-term attendance spike, it is questionable as to if these are sustainable practices.

      • Anne Brown

        Thank you for addressing this important topic. For the BMA there have been many variables that have impacted attendance other than free admission. In the mid-1990s, the BMA hosted 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 less on attendance and more on building recognition of the museum’s great collection and showcasing new scholarship from our talented curators, which resulted in several nationally travelling exhibitions. The museum then began a multi-year renovation in 2011, which successfully transformed galleries for the contemporary, American, African, and Asian art collections and greatly improved visitor amenities. We kept the museum open to serve our visitors during this time, but attendance necessarily decreased in 2014 when 60% of the building was closed for the renovation. We certainly anticipate post-renovation attendance will increase.

  12. Ted Silberberg

    Dear Colleen,
    I think you have made some excellent points in your post. I would like to add, however, that after 30 years of experience in the field, we have found that the museums that are most likely to offer free admission are art museums. This happens for two main reasons: first, they tend to be niche and not mass market – and, they are most likely (especially if located in the U.S.) to have the major private financial support and endowments to allow for free admission. Secondly, mass market science centers, zoos and children’s museums don’t offer free admission but also don’t have major private and endowment support. I would therefore argue that when you write about “how free admission really affects museum attendance” it is really art museums to which you are referring.

    Further, something to keep in mind is that surveys may contain respondent biases. Participants might feel a natural desire to provide socially acceptable answers — especially as cost is a sensitive issue — in order to be perceived in a positive light.

    The most important factor to recognize is that every museum is different. The key for each is to find the right balance for that organization within its own unique set of circumstances. Free admission is no more a “magic bullet” than any other single factor that contributes to a museum’s overall success.

    • Colleen Dilenschneider

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences on this topic, Ted. You and I are in complete agreement that it is essential for every organization to contemplate its financial model (including pricing strategy) in the context of their own, unique set of circumstances. As you state, there is no “magic bullet” when it comes to an organization’s overall success.

      In terms of the applicability of the findings: Art museums were certainly a component of the assessed set of organizations – though representatively included amongst many types of visitor-serving organizations (e.g. natural history, science, zoos, aquaria, etc.) Indeed, many such organizations – of all types – offer free admission. The question really isn’t the socio-cultural impact of “free” admission – it is the sustained viability of transitioning from a paid basis to a complimentary basis as a supposed panacea for other issues (e.g. access, engaging emerging audiences). Opinions aside, what the data irrefutably indicate – and, what your experiences would seem to affirm – is that the issue of admission policy is complex, multi-faceted, and deserves a fully-informed, thoughtful analysis before being applied to any individual circumstance.

  13. Ian David Moss

    Hi Colleen, long time no talk. Great analysis! Sorry to be late to this particular party, but I wanted to make sure you were aware of some research Createquity did on this topic earlier this year, which brought us to similar conclusions.

    Looking at different sources than you did, we found that people with lower incomes and less education (low-SES) participate at lower rates in a huge range of activities, including not just museums but also going to the movies, dancing socially, and even attending sporting events. This is despite the fact that low-SES adults actually have more free time at their disposal, on average. Cost is a barrier for some low-SES individuals who want to attend performances or exhibits, but not as many as you might think. In fact, if we could somehow make it so that low-SES adults were no more likely to decide not to attend an exhibit or performance because of cost than their more affluent peers, it would hardly change the socioeconomic composition of audiences at all.

    A major contrast to this dynamic is television. Ironically, the for-profit commercial TV industry is far more effective than our subsidized nonprofit arts organizations at engaging economically vulnerable members of our society. Not only do low-SES adults watch more TV, low-SES adults who don’t attend arts exhibits or performances watch even more TV than low-SES adults who do.

    Check out the full article here: a href=””>

    As you said, we’re just scratching the surface here, and at Createquity we’re working on a follow-up to that article that explores further why TV seems to be so much more successful at reaching poor and less-educated audiences and whether this is a cause for societal concern. I’ll be sure to let you know when we’re out with that.

  14. M.

    If you want the next generation to support museums and the arts, $20 -30 admissions will not entice gen Y guests. They don’t have the money and given that they have to make choices, educated youth will opt for art movies and healthy eats with friends rather than supporting some museum head making a million dollars a year salary (ie Houston Museum of Art). Smart move- gouge the tourists and the millenials. The first will not recommend your city for friends to visit and the latter will forget that art museums are a part of the landscape.

    As for me, an old art lover, the price point is way too high. I’ve seen my fair share of the greatest art (The Met, The British Museum, The Wallace Collection, etc) to start supporting overpaid personnel. The reason the British museums are free is because they bring in tourism. For heavens sake, gouging the tourists on everything makes the city you are visiting seem unfriendly and preditory!


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