To Charge or Not to Charge? That is the Question 

 Studies show that admission fees are generally not a primary visitation barrier. | Image: Lineapple.

Studies show that admission fees are generally not a primary visitation barrier. | Image: Lineapple.

by Nancy Lanthier

Most BC cultural organizations offer admission by donation, by tickets, or by a combination of both tickets and by-donation access at certain times. Which approach best balances the needs of a cultural organization and its visitors? This topic inspired much discussion last week on the BC Museums Association’s listserv. 

Linda Digby at the Kelowna Museums Society started the discussion by posing the question: which generates more revenue—charging admission or asking for a donation—and how does each impact visitation?

Kelowna Museums recently posted "$5 suggested donation" on its previously blank donation boxes and saw an increase in donation revenue. Kelowna Museums’ board is interested in increasing admission revenue. Should it institute an admission fee or increase the suggested donation? 

Nancy Kirkpatrick of North Vancouver Museum & Archives noted that “people carry little or no cash these days,” which compromises the effectiveness of cash donation boxes. Kirkpatrick recommended that museums “ticket all visitors and ask for a cash donation via a credit/debit card reader. The card reader would offer suggested donation amounts just like the tip calculator on restaurant card readers.”

When the Quesnel Museum underwent construction, it stopped charging admission and asked instead for donation for six weeks.. Attendance increased slightly, but revenue decreased by around 30 percent compared to the same month the previous year. 

Yale Historic Site raised admission prices this year “with no complaints.” Deb Zervini writes, “What I have noticed from visitors is that if you charge too little for your museum, they believe there is no value in visiting, as ‘there can’t be that much to see’ or ‘it’s not worth it if you’re not charging very much.’” 

In 2011, Burnaby Village Museum went from charging $12 for adults to free admission. "As a result, we saw a dramatic increase in visitor numbers that has largely been sustained since," writes Sanya Pleshakov. "From my perspective, free admission has been a huge success. We also heard the same fears about “free” devaluing the museum experience but I have not seen that happen. And making the museum more accessible has created more opportunities for community partnerships and more diverse programming."

In a casual conversion with a rep at the Vancouver Art Gallery, I was told that the Gallery’s popular by-donation Tuesday program is certainly a good marketing move, but one that it isn’t focused on revenue. It’s about audience engagement. The Gallery’s goal with the program is to get more people interested in art.

The BC Museums Association’s Erica Mattson brought our attention to the article “How Free Admission Really Affects Museum Attendance,” by Colleen Dilenschneider (which can be found, along with a number of others on the topic, on the BC Alliance’s Resource page). Citing landmark studies, the article concludes that admission price is not the primary barrier to engagement. The true culprit? Lack of time. The data also indicates that “in most instances, audiences indicate greater intentions to visit organizations that charge more than $20 for an adult admission than those that are free.”

The discussion was lively and thoughtful, but it's important to consider the question of attracting new visitors holistically. While admission strategies are one consideration, a more comprehensive approach is needed to engage emerging audiences.

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