For museums, declines in attendance - a trend that goes back decades - have only continued, confirming what we've been seeing in our analysis over the past few years. Museums are losing attendance on both measures of audience share and size.
- The percentage of Americans visiting art museums and galleries has dropped by 21% since its peak, and the percentage of Americans “touring a park, monument, building, or neighborhood for historic or design value” dropped by over a third since its peak.
- In terms of audience size, art museums have lost 5 million visitors, while history has lost over 8 million visitors, since their respective peaks.
- And if you think other museum types - such as science museums and centers and children’s museums - are not facing similar challenges, keep reading; our internal data shows similar trends affecting them as well.
Given that older Americans are visiting at the same or higher rates, that means the drop is coming from other segments of the population, and the biggest loss is worrisome indeed: younger, well-educated whites – what has always been the pipeline of museum audiences. This drying-up of the pipeline imperils the very future of art and history museums, because if it is not reversed, obsolescence lies ahead. (And don’t count on minorities to make up the gap: current trends indicate their attendance rates are, at best, holding steady.)
The good news? At least museums aren't ballet, opera, or classical music, which have plummeted even further.
More seriously, the good news is that SPPA isn't finding that participation in the arts (including history) is dying. It's just that the traditional institutions that used to be responsible for delivering the arts are becoming less relevant over time. That is, it isn't necessarily art itself, but how art is presented and shared (or, for that matter, history and science).
So should this be a cause for depression? Or is this, instead, a call-to-action?
As you can guess, we think that the SPPA findings are a loud and clear call-to-action. The downward trend can be reversed.
One of our fellow discussants on the panel releasing the latest SPPA findings was the CEO of the New World Symphony in Miami Beach. This organization blew us away because they unapologetically stick to traditional classical music. No pops, no modern instruments. Just the most classic of classical music, and they are driven to expand the audience.
Given the participation data released by the NEA, one would think the New World Symphony's case would be hopeless, right? Well, they have reinvented how classical music is delivered, and they are knocking it out of the ballpark when it comes to drawing new audiences and breathing life back into classical music. How? By realizing that their mission wasn’t to perform in darkened concert halls, but instead to engage people with classical music, whatever the method. (We'll likely post more about how they do it, so stay tuned.)
Yet one of the hardest questions that clients or presentation audiences ask us is the question about how museums are confronting the downward trend and turning the tables, just as the New World Symphony is doing. Unfortunately, we're somewhat stuck when asked that question. We can point to some clients driving remarkable change and impact (and we'll likely be posting more about how they do that), but to be frank, there aren't too many high-impact examples across the museum field.
But why are some classical music organizations making more headway than most of the museum field? There are a few reasons:
- First, there may be something to the reference to Cassandra in the recent New York Times article about the SPPA release. While many in classical music have, indeed, stuck their heads in the sand deeper, the field has also been fortunate to have some very powerful leaders who determined that nothing short of fundamental change can reverse the downward trend.
- Second, we're willing to place part of the responsibility on the leaders and advisors in the field, including us. In our work outside the museum field, we're in the business of reversing intractable challenges, but we haven't pushed all of our museum clients as hard as we should. We've been willing to allow the field to cherry-pick the data trends they do like, and push aside the harder facts. Even though we've been sitting on growing piles of evidence that the museum field, including museums of all types, not just art and history, continues on a very dangerous downward slide. We are not going to be as complacent in the future. At least on our end, the SPPA is a call-to-action.
For anyone who also sees this as a call-to-action, we're moving towards a monthly blog release on topics such as:
- How the funding environment has shifted dramatically . . . positively for a fortunate few, while increasingly precarious for most others
- How some museums have been reversing the downward trends (and if you've done that, we'd love to hear from you since your insights might be valuable to other museums)
- Relevant examples from outside the museum field
- How the current cases for support museums make simply don’t cut it, and how museums need to build a new case of support to demonstrate their impact
- What we've been finding in our ongoing research to break out of the downward cycle
So here's the crux of the problem:
At this point, continuing with the status quo is the riskiest choice, as it pretty much guarantees accelerating decline and, ultimately, obsolescence. The underlying challenges are simply too strong for most to defy gravity and continue as is.
And here's our call-to-action:
It's time to identify the real meaning and value of museums. Articulate that meaning and value. Deliver that meaning and value. Sell that meaning and value. The communities and individuals we serve need that from their museums.
Because we do believe that museums are important, and that they do have the capacity to transform people’s lives.
It's time to reverse the downward cycle.
What do you think? Simply click on “comments” below to share your thoughts (and if you are reading this from your e-mail subscription, go to our blog to comment).