Does Free Admission Live Up to the Hype? This Foundation Thinks So.

The theory of Occam's Razor suggests that the simplest answer to a question is often the correct one.

So if one were to pose the question, "How do we maximize attendance at our museum?" The simplest answer, of course, would be "Make attendance free." That's certainly the line of thinking for many museum directors and foundations, the including the David Berg Foundation, the New York City-based funder whose issue areas include historic preservation, Jewish issues and—surprise!—museums.

The foundation recently awarded a one-year grant of $275,000 to New York City's Jewish Museum to underwrite free admission Saturdays and an expanded evaluation and assessment of the program. What's more, the museum didn't need to test out their hypothesis. Since its inception in 2006, its Free Saturdays program has brought over 328,000 visitors to the museum. 

Toward evaluation and assessment, the grant money will help the museum track its Free Saturdays visitors at a much more granular level by distributing surveys that track visitation patterns, visitor demographics, and best practices. It's safe to say that free admission is a winning strategy for the Jewish Museum.

Claudia Gould, the Helen Goldsmith Menschel Director of the Jewish Museum said, "As the only major art museum on Museum Mile offering free admission on a weekend day, Free Saturdays allows us to welcome a broader public to the Jewish Museum, while filling a need within the Jewish community."

But other organizations may want to think twice before they haul their turnstiles out to the curb. For some museums, free admission may actually hurt, not help, their larger aims of engaging underserved audiences. It sounds counterintuitive, but there's a lot of research out there arguing that admission fees aren't a substantial obstacle to audience engagement. More common roadblocks tend to be things like a lack of time and lack of interest in program offerings. (Needless to say, addressing these obstacles open another complicated can of worms. Free admission will only get you so far if the programming itself doesn't resonate with visitors.)

Then, of course, there's the issue of dollars and cents. Without a generous grant to fall back on, museums will clearly miss that source of steady income.

All of which brings us back to the Jewish Museum, which provides a good case study of how to approach free admission in an incremental and intelligent way. First of all, free admission is limited to Saturdays only. It's not an all-or-nothing proposition. The musuem's normal admission fee structure is $15 for adults, $12 for seniors, $7.50 for students, and free for children and members. Admission on Thursdays from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. is "pay as you wish."

Secondly, they've been managing the effectiveness of this program for years. The David Berg Foundation surely appreciated this approach and remains confident that their money will be spent wisely. This grant didn't just come out of nowhere.

Third, the museum views free admission as a means to an end, and not an end in itself. Moving forward, the museum plans to use Free Saturdays to target younger and more diverse audiences, identify ways to deepen engagement with first-time visitors, and introduce special Jewish Sabbath-related programming.

And lastly, thanks to this grant, the museum is less reliant on earned revenues than museums without such grants.