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September 30, 2013


Celeste DeWald

In California, museum attendance is not declining - at least according to the California Association of Museums' 2012 survey, which includes art and history museums, natural science museums, aquariums, zoos, and botanical gardens.

This is a quote from our survey results: "Respondents were asked if their museum had experienced an increase or decrease in attendance compared to the previous year. Essentially one half (51.1 percent) indicated that they experienced an increase in attendance, while over one third (35.9 percent) had about the same as the previous year. Only 13 percent indicated that they experienced a decrease in museum attendance." A total of 152 complete surveys were received and, after deleting duplicates and verifying responses, 140 were used as the the sample for this survey. That is a response rate of 10 percent of the California museum field.

Even when I filter our 2012 survey results to only include art museums, we still show an increase in overall attendance. Only 15.6 percent of California art museums experienced a decline in attendance while 50.0 percent had an increase.

I absolutely agree with the overall message of your blog post, i.e. that museums need to think about their value and how to deliver it. I just cringe whenever generalizations are made about "museum attendance" when a downward trend is not what our data suggests in California.

Maurice Davies

In the UK museums have been working hard to better meet the needs of audiences, with spectacular results. The largest national survey shows that 53% of adults living in England visited a museum in the past year - up an incredible ten percentage points from 43% in 2005. So there certainly are ways to achieve a trend of growing participation.

James Chung

As Celeste DeWald points out, museum attendance appears to have increased in California in 2012. We'd love to hear any thoughts about the drivers behind why California may be moving in an opposite direction to the long-term national trend.

But we should note that comparing the California data from museums to the SPPA data from the population is likely comparing apples to oranges. That is, the California survey captured a rough indication of total number of visits, while the NEA's SPPA (and some of the other measures that are in line with the SPPA findings) involve different measures including market share and the total population that visits museums over longer periods of time.

Assuming for the moment that the two measures are equivalent, it would be interesting to noodle further on why California museums may be moving in a different direction than the national average. For example, some possible hypotheses might include:

- Better fundraising dynamics to support growth? (California includes one of the regions that has seen the most wealth creation in America...although that doesn't cover the entire state)

- A more culturally tuned audience in California? (Perhaps)

- Overall population growth? (Maybe, maybe not, since the increase was only about 2% between 2010 and 2012)

- More effective museum management in California than elsewhere? (Maybe, maybe not, but it's certainly interesting to ponder)

- A more effective museum service organization serving the state? (If so, we'd love to hear!)

- More favorable demographic mix? (On first glance, we suspect that this may be one of the factors for moving differently than national patterns. From our work in California, we know that the fastest growing segment in California by far is the retirement-age cohort, and the SPPA found that they are sticking with museums while the drop in engagement is happening among the younger population. In addition, the SPPA found that minorities are engaging at the same rate instead of dropping like their white non-Hispanic peers, and California is the state with the second-lowest percentage of white non-Hispanic residents (only 39% vs. 63% nationwide). While we don't think that the demographic mix is the only factor, we suspect it's one of the factors for why California may move differently).

One scenario, which we're unable to examine at this point, is that in our corporate work, we often find that in declining industries, visitation or revenue flattens in non-growth markets...then actually goes up for a while as management focuses on squeezing some growth out of a non-growth market. What happens then is that the management starts to realize that they can't bring in new customers as fast as they are losing customers, but they can find ways to drive more visits or revenue from their core base of customers. You don't have to look any further than theme parks and ski resorts to see this phenomena at work. There are pros and cons to that approach, typically pivoting around short-term gain vs. long-term growth. But these are decisions that a lot of consumer-facing organizations are confronting these days.

Anyway, thanks for the comments from California, and we'd love to hear more. And thanks to the others who are emailing and calling with thoughts about the issues and the paths that some are taking to reverse the trend. No matter what side of the attendance equation you're on, we hope to see as many as possible focusing on a call-to-action. As written above, ours remains: "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."

What's your call-to-action?

Mary Case

I wonder if this might be a case where big data obscures the real issue? Yes, the aggregate numbers are down from peaks (long ago in the 70s, right? you don't say in your post?), but wouldn’t that be true for any bricks and mortar industry? Of course fewer people leave their couches for f2f visits but many museums, like some symphonies, are succeeding.

See “Magnetic: The Art and Science of Engagement,” Tuttle and Bergeron. Six case studies of museums that are flourishing -- art, science, children, and history -- Philbrook, Conner Prairie, Chrysler, Pittsburgh Children’s, Greensboro Natural Science, Franklin. Leadership does matter, plus a comprehensive framework for success.

See also the Heath brothers “Switch: How to Make Change When Change is Hard.” These two books go a long way towards providing a road map well into a bright 21s Century.

As the Heath brothers suggest: follow the bright spots. In my town, that would be the Phillips, the Building Museum, the National Museum of Women in the Arts. In Omaha, the Children’s Museum, in Maine also the Portland Children’s; Dayton: Boonshoft Museum of Discovery, other places: Fallingwater, Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, National Czech & Slovak Museum, Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts, Leahy Center for Lake Champlain (I guess I’ve got to stop but I could go on and on...)

Mary Jane Taylor

If museums are going to articulate the value of what they offer, we're going to have to get serious about showing the impact that visits have on school kids. School group visits, as Reach's work has shown, are one of the few proven pathways to a love of museums for minority kids and those from households with lower parental education levels. While I know many of us wish that we still lived in a world where it was simply accepted as true that a school field trip was an inherently good thing, the reality is that schools are cutting back on cultural field trips at an alarming rate. Corporations and foundations that help to fund free or reduced admission for deserving kids now ask for proof that kids really do benefit from a morning at the museum. For a model of how organizations can begin tackling this tough question, see this recent study by the University of Arkansas about field trips to the Crystal Bridges Museum of Art. http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2013/09/study-students-really-do-learn-stuff-on-field-trips/279720/

Margy Waller

When we ask people what they value about the arts, they tell us that there are two community benefits that people see as valuable *whether they think of themselves as goers or not*:

1) the arts bring people together in a special way, creating a civic infrastructure and social capital,

2) the arts make places unique and special, the kind of neighborhoods that people want to visit, live and work in, and invest in.

Most people already believe that the arts have these beneficial impacts that position museums as a public good. This means we don't have to change their minds by throwing a bunch of data at them. (That wouldn't work anyway.)

We DO have to start talking about the arts in this frame tho! Talking about our precious oh-so-special arts triggers thinking about the fine arts or high arts that turns people OFF, making them think that we are talking to someone else - because that is not what they do!

Interestingly, and to our surprise and dismay, it turns out that positioning arts education as the value proposition for our sector does not work.

If you want to see more about what does and does not work when communicating about museums and arts for broad support - check it out here:


James Chung, Reach Advisors

As we try to work through responses to some of the great comments coming in via the blog, phone and email, we wanted to say to Maurice thanks for sharing about the UK experience. As the participation figures are moving in a different direction than here in the US, we'd love to see if you wish to share any quick highlights. Regardless, Susie or I will certainly be in touch since this is a topic worth examining from every possible angle. Thanks!


I have very much enjoyed the postings put forth by the Reach Advisors, but your most recent epistle is more timely for my organization than you could have imagined. A colleague and I have been making the case, albeit in small ways, that we need to rethink our purpose as a historic site in the community and have found roadblocks since we're "just fine" (if it's not broke, why are you trying to fix it mentality -or- status quo). Thank you for taking the time to share your insights based on the research of the Advisors and that of NEA; this may finally give us some firmer ground to stand on whilst making the case for change (whatever form that may take).

James Chung

Mary, thanks for the comments.

Yes, some of those museums have been doing tremendous work to defy the overall trends, and some have been in touch about this blog post since they realize the severity of the issue that the field needs to address. There's a lot to share and discuss.

Regarding your question about how the figures compare to the attendance peaks of the past (the share of population visiting history peaked in 1982, for art, 1992), yes you're correct. But the real challenge remains: the percentage of the public served by museums (and the absolute numbers even amidst a growing population) continues to shrink in successive waves of the SPPA.

Regarding your question about how that downslide is the case for every bricks-and-mortar industry, we analyze that kind of stuff rather closely in our work outside the museum field. Perhaps the best example when thinking about bricks-and-mortar is the retail category. Those numbers have actually gone up continuously over the past few decades, except for short-term cyclical drops during recessions. For the most part, retail has recovered even in the face of increased internet competition. (Most have figured out how to harness the internet to fuel their bricks-and-mortar business, and we still see ample opportunity for museums to do the same.) But not every category of retail has followed that trend. In particular, department stores took the biggest beating. The landmark-institution retailers just weren't responsive to adapt as consumer needs, patterns and preferences changed over time.

Additionally, according to the ALA, libraries have grown their visitation numbers as well, increasing in number of visits by 33% in the first decade of this century (an increase greater than that of population growth, indicating real growth).

Lots to ponder, but the one thing we don't want to see is the museum field rationalizing that the declining trends aren't relevant. That's what the newspaper publishing industry thought 20 years ago before the internet appeared on the scene. Museums can be much smarter about how this plays out!

Mary Case

Thanks for responding to my wondering, James. I think we need to ask questions about the data as deeply as we can, particularly of you, particularly because you and Susie are the only group (I think?) providing us with useful data-driven ideas right now. Thanks for everything you do. I also wonder if there is something useful to know about "free" and something useful to know about "replicas" which is one thing that libraries have going for them. So many problems to solve...can't wait to continue...


Hi there

Has anyone done any research or have any data for attendance specifically for when a museum goes through a major capital rennovation and increase in space?

I am currently working with a museum who is considering a major increase in their exhibit space along with a complete modernisation and transformation of the entire experience. I am trying to find some data to see how attendance changes once a rennovation improves and increases its space. All I am looking for is basic % benchmarks.

Any information or pointers to anyone who could assit would be really appreciated.

Many Thanks

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