The Guggenheim Joins the Ranks of the $30 Museums

Could thirty be the magic number that saves museums from inflation, dwindling attendance and the lingering effects of the Covid-19 pandemic? More and more major museums seem to think so.

Yesterday, the Guggenheim became the latest institution to raise adult admission to $30, following a similar price hike by the Whitney Museum of American Art last month and by the Philadelphia Museum of Art the month before that. Last year, the Metropolitan Museum of Art raised its general admission fees for out-of-state adult visitors from twenty-five to thirty bucks.

The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 2020. Noam Galai/Getty Images

There’s still heterogeneity across institutions—particularly when looking at the U.S. as a whole—but there has been a slow march toward $30 for some time. SFMOMA announced it will begin charging $30 this October. Florida’s Salvador Dalí­ Museum charges $29, while admission to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston costs $27. Many notable art museums around the nation have bumped their entrance fees from $20 to $25 for adults, and the Art Institute of Chicago charges out-of-state visitors $32.

It’s worth noting that among major institutions that have raised fees, most offer some form of discounted admission, whether that be free entry for locals, discounted entry for SNAP/EBT cardholders or veterans, monthly free or pay-what-you-wish days, or discounts for seniors and students. However, whether these accommodations do enough to ensure that a day at the art museum is accessible to all is largely unknown.

Research into the impact of admissions fees on museum attendance doesn’t provide much clarity. Some studies find that both attendance and audience diversity go up when museums adopt a pay-what-you-will model, and that museum visitation goes down when formerly free institutions implement fees. Real-world analyses seem to support this. The Kentucky Museum saw visitation rise by 45 percent after moving to a free admission model in 2019, while England’s York Art Gallery saw its attendance drop by 60 percent when it began charging an entry fee. But other studies find that rising entrance fees may not have a measurable impact on whether people visit specific institutions and that factors like location and transportation availability or visitor education level and profession are more likely to be barriers to visitation.

The Guggenheim, the Whitney and other art institutions around the globe have cited factors like rising maintenance costs and inflation, decreased attendance post-Covid and even environmental concerns when raising fees. But whether a modest cost increase is anything more than a band-aid remains to be seen. Revenues from admissions represented roughly seven percent of the total income of the 150 largest art museums pre-Covid—less than the revenue generated by museum stores or individual or family contributions.

Today, that figure may be even lower given attendance numbers that still haven’t bounced back after the pandemic. It’s a problem not necessarily because of lost ticket revenue but because, as Sotheby’s Institute of Art reports, earned income (everything from retail sales to revenue from educational programs) may account for 40 percent of a museums’ revenue. A visitor who pays nothing for admission may still support the museum by shopping in the museum store, paying for a workshop or even buying museum-branded merchandise after their visit.

Will a modest $5 price increase keep devoted art lovers from visiting their favorite major museums? Probably not, but in New York, it may drive some to institutions with lower entry fees, like the New Museum or the Brooklyn Museum, or to museums that are admission-free, like the Bronx Museum of the Arts. A day at the Guggenheim or the Met or the Whitney may also become a less appealing prospect for the many, many people who are frugal by necessity but don’t qualify for some form of discounted admission. And then there’s the troubling and very real concern that rising admission will reduce audience diversity.

The other question to ponder is: will a modest $5 price increase keep these institutions afloat in challenging times? Critics of these increases argue not only that increasing entry fees goes against a core mission of museums—specifically, to provide public access to art—but also that increases don’t make sense because entry fees cover such a small fraction of most museums’ operating budget.

“What this means is that large and hard-won percentage increases in admissions… yield small increases in operating budgets,” Paul J. DiMaggio points out in The Economics of Art Museums, before adding that art museums benefited from a demographic surge in the number of what he calls typical visitors that we may not see again. “Art museums can no longer count on steadily increasing demand for their services.”

The Guggenheim Joins the Ranks of the $30 Museums