“I am about to make you weep.”
Earlier this month, I combined credit cards points, a willingness to stay in a youth hostel, a keen eye for airfare deals, and an adventurous spirit to create a three-night adventure to Stockholm, Sweden. Though Stockholm was never on my must-see list… I now know that my list was missing a great destination! Stockholm was fun, interesting, welcoming, delicious, and an all-around great choice.
My trip included a visit to the Vasa Museum, which houses a magnificent 17th century Swedish warship. The ship sank on its maiden voyage in 1628 and has been salvaged and painstakingly preserved in a fascinating museum.
I spent the first few minutes of my visit listening to a guided tour, and then I peered over a railing to the floor below, where I saw an English-speaking museum worker talking to tourists in an open preservation area (where workers care for artifacts, and visitors can watch them do their thing). “I’m heading down there,” I thought to myself.
The English-speaking museum worker and I ended up speaking for around 20 minutes. He was a researcher who also had worked for museums in the US. When I told him I am a professional fundraiser, and I used to be a fundraiser at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, he said, “I am about to make you weep.”
The Vasa Museum is largely supported through ticket sales. The Swedish government does not provide substantial, ongoing, operational support to the museum, unless there is a major project (e.g. building a new facility). There are a limited number of corporate sponsorships, and I saw a museum shop that seemed to be doing a brisk business. Their web site also includes a link to a “friends of the museum” program, as well as a museum restaurant with opportunities to host banquets. But, really, the museum is heavily supported through ticket sales.
There was one more tidbit that was, to me, the most fascinating part of our conversation: the price of a ticket to the Vasa Museum is roughly calibrated to the cost of a movie ticket. Every few years, the staff reviews what people in Stockholm are paying to go to the movies, and then they decide if they need to adjust their ticket price.
There is an entire cottage industry in the US built upon raising funds for cultural institutions. This includes arts and culture destinations that get substantial government support. It’s hard to imagine any arts and culture institution in the US depending so heavily on ticket sales that they do not need an annual campaign or a robust foundation relations program, among other things.
I’m sure there is more to this story. There has to be. But here are some basic facts:
- At the moment, admission to the Vasa Museum costs 130 SEK for adults, which is around $15 US.
- An article in The New Yorker indicated that at the American museum that is arguably the most prestigious, or at least the most famous – the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York – has signs that suggest $25 admission for adults (with lower prices for students and seniors), but the average visitor pays $11, far below the $40 that the Met says each visit costs.
- According to Art Museums by the Numbers 2015, a publication by the Association of Art Museum Directors, admission fees accounted for only 6% of museum revenues. The same report found that the revenue per visitor, in admissions only (not including things like the museum shop and the museum restaurant) was $3.70, while the average art museum expense per visitor was $55.25.
I am not conducting a scientific study. To really make an apples-to-apples comparison, I would have to compare similar museums in the US to the Vasa Museum, and to other museums in Sweden. I would have to compare fixed costs, government support, types of visitors (locals versus out of town visitors versus school groups versus tourists from other countries), ways that costs vary among cultural institutions in the two countries, how much disposal income Americans and Swedes tend to have, and much, much more. In addition, I would want to know how many Vasa Museum visitors are tourists from abroad, rather than Swedes. But the question remains:
Would the average American visitor be willing to pay around the same price for a museum visit that they pay for a movie?
If not – is it because we do not value the arts? Is it because we have certain expectations of what we should pay for things and experiences, and we make spending decisions based on those expectations? Is it because we do not know how much our visits to cultural museums actually cost, or we don’t know how to assign a monetary value to those experiences?
What about people who cannot afford pricey museum admission fees – is it better to keep museum admission fees low (or free) so that our cultural institutions do not become places where only those with disposable income can go? Would those people who say they cannot afford a pricey museum ticket be willing to pay the same amount for a movie?
As a fundraiser, would it help or hurt my “case for giving” (i.e. fundraising pitch) to tell potential donors that the average visitor pays only a fraction of what their visit actually costs?
I felt that what I paid to see the Vasa Museum was worth every penny. Or, rather, every Swedish krona. That said, I did notice that museum admission in Sweden seemed to be higher, overall, than fees that I’m used to in the US. (I live in the Washington, DC area, which has some of the best free museums – thank you, Smithsonian Institution – in the world. And as a tourist, I was willing to shell out a bit more for all sorts of things because, well, when will I be in Stockholm again?)
You get what you pay for. You value what you pay for. And, if you’re lucky, you feel that you get your money’s worth.