The Fallout from the IMA’s Admission Hike

Last year, the Indianapolis Museum of Art raised its admission cost from free to $18. Memberships are up, but attendance? That’s not a pretty picture.
At the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s 133rd annual meeting this past May, CEO Charles Venable and his team had a lot to celebrate. The executives took turns at a podium in the Toby theater touting the institution’s recent accomplishments. Since 2014, museum memberships had doubled from 8,000 to 16,000. Curator Scott Stulen continued to delight visitors with quirky installations like artist-designed mini golf. A pair of 17th-century Japanese silk screens on stage represented the museum’s many acquisitions from the past year. And a $17.7 million payment had been made on the principal of the IMA’s unusually large $118 million debt.

Noticeably absent from Venable’s speech, however, was any mention of the IMA’s biggest news from 2015: the introduction of an $18 admission charge after being free for most of the past half-century. Missing, too, was the usual comment on attendance. In previous years, Venable and the board chairman made a point of boasting about the museum’s 400,000 annual visitors—a far cry from the 1 million the building and grounds were built to host, but still respectable.

If guests at the annual meeting had been curious about the most recent attendance figure, they only needed to consult the Internet. A month earlier at a museum conference in Ireland, Silvia Filippini Fantoni, the IMA’s director of interpretation, media, and evaluation, had given a presentation on the results of charging admission. In a slideshow available online, she listed attendance at the IMA from April 2015 to December 2015 as 102,569. Once the first 12-month period was complete and the occasional free days were accounted for, it became clear that the final figure was about 160,000 visitors—60 percent less than the number the museum was claiming just two years ago. (The Eiteljorg Museum, which is less than half the IMA’s size, attracts almost that many people.)

Whether the disparity represents a real drop or a seriously flawed counting method in years past remains debatable. The thermal sensors that track visitors moving in and out of the building’s various entrances actually registered an increase in traffic between 2015 and 2016. But this much is certain: When it comes to attendance, the IMA just learned it’s a much smaller museum than anyone ever thought.

Ambitious as she was, even civic leader May Wright Sewall, who cofounded the Art Association of Indianapolis in 1883, couldn’t have imagined the sprawling campus it eventually would call home under another name: the IMA. With 210,000 square feet of gallery space set on 152 acres, it is the fifth-largest encyclopedic art museum in the country. Long before the institution moved to its Michigan Road location in 1970, it offered free admission to the permanent collection. So when a $74 million expansion debuted in 2005 along with a $7 admission fee to finance it, the museum expected some pushback from visitors—and got it. When Max Anderson became CEO of the museum a year later, one of his first actions was proposing to the board the elimination of the fee. The modest revenue from admission hadn’t contributed meaningfully to the annual budget, he reasoned. And the more guests the museum had, the easier it would be to win grants.

Without ticket sales, however, counting people turned out to be surprisingly hard. In 2006, former deputy director Robert Stein brought a system called Trafsys to the IMA to address that problem. More than 30 museums across the country used Trafsys, including the Art Institute of Chicago and The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. Thermal sensors mounted at the museum’s entrance tallied bodies going in and out. In the years following the system’s arrival at the IMA, Trafsys counted, on average, about 400,000 annual visitors in the building. Thousands more probably spent time in the once-free outdoor gardens, but they weren’t included in that number, which museum leaders—including Venable, when he replaced Anderson in 2012—happily touted in annual reports and speeches.

Venable and the board were less pleased about the museum’s spending, however. Typically, a nonprofit tries not to draw more than 5 percent from its endowment each year. The IMA was pulling more than 8 percent. The enormous scope of the facility, which Venable says is scaled for a city the size of Atlanta, contributed to the problem. After cutting some staff, increasing revenue through ticket sales seemed to him and the board the only way to bridge the rest of the gap. “The expansion in 2005 was totally predicated on charging for admission—that was its business plan,” he says. “So our decision last year was really going back to what was originally intended.”

In setting a price, the IMA leadership looked to several comparable art museums around the country, as well as The Children’s Museum, which was once free. Today, the latter charges $22.50 for an adult and has more than 1 million visitors a year. To Venable, that seemed like a model. The IMA settled on a pricey $18 ticket to encourage people to buy $55 annual memberships—members being much more likely to maintain a long-term relationship with the institution, and even become donors.

While outrage at the new fee was nearly universal in the press and among patrons, some experts did side with the museum. John Morey, founder of the Morey Group, which studies attendance and admission-fee trends at cultural attractions, believes an institution’s finances trump most other concerns. “I can’t think of another organization that has gone from free to $18,” he says. “That’s a very unusual change. But I can’t blame them for having to do this, either. You can’t operate on attendance. You have to operate on revenue. A museum should serve the public, but it won’t if it goes out of business.”

When the fee went into effect in April 2015, Jerry Wise, CFO of the IMA, expected to see memberships grow from 8,000 to 16,000 in a couple of years. That happened in less than 12 months. He also anticipated about $1 million in general admission revenue in the first year, but  it fell a little short at $750,000. To those who would question the significance of a few hundred thousand dollars to an annual budget of $28 million, Wise points out that the museum doesn’t receive many donations that size. “But the ramp up in memberships has been the real success story,” he says. “On the other side, we modeled as much as a 15 percent decrease in attendance based on the limited research that’s out there.”

Exactly how much attendance did drop in the first year of charging admission remains a mystery. Venable and others now say they always suspected the Trafsys number was inflated, but had no way of knowing by how much. Anyone who left the museum and reentered was counted twice. And while the IMA adjusted for the number of employees coming in and out every day, other people—volunteers, contractors, delivery guys—added up as if they were there to see the art. “In the past, we said to ourselves, ‘Well, we’re going to report this many visitors, but where are they?’” Venable says. “You just didn’t see them in the museum.”

Some challenge the notion that Trafsys could be off by the 60 percent the IMA claims after a year of counting tickets, however. Chris Wadsworth, president of Trafsys, says so-called double-counts typically amount to a 5 percent error or less. “And museums always ask about the postman, the employees, etcetera,” he says. “Those things stay pretty consistent over time. What you need to look for is the delta—the change over time. It stands to reason that you’re going to see fewer guests when you start charging for admission.”

Stein also notes that his staff at the IMA periodically used handheld clickers at the door to check those numbers against Trafsys reports, and the two moved in lockstep. “We calibrated those sensors several times a year and monitored them through real-time reporting that was available online,” he says. “Since we didn’t require tickets for visitors, the thermal counters were the most accurate solution.”

If the IMA’s Trafsys numbers had plummeted in the first year of general admission, it would have been strong evidence that charging was a disaster. But there’s a wrinkle: From April 2015 to April 2016, the Trafsys sensors counted about 460,000 people moving in and out of the institution’s doors—thousands more than the previous year, when admission was free. One could argue that because the previously uncounted gardens are now accessible primarily through the museum, more visitors get counted two and three times as they move back and forth. But to Venable, it suggests the IMA always had approximately the 160,000 annual guests it can now verify. He claims the number doesn’t alarm him, either. Pointing to studies that show only 25 percent of Americans have any interest in the arts, he believes the amount of traffic the IMA can expect in the galleries has a fairly low ceiling.

“We think we’ll have that number until we do more programming aimed at getting more true visitors to this campus,” Venable says. “If we could get to where we really have 400,000 visitors a year, that would be large. That would be a stretch goal. It’s going to be very hard to do in a city the size of Indianapolis.”

Tarnished as the IMA’s brand became in the wake of the admission-charge news and the resulting long trails of angry comments online, curator Stulen was a gleaming detail. His adventurous experiments such as the mini golf installation, Monster Drawing Rallies, and B-Movie Bingo kept the museum relevant during a challenging period. So Stulen’s announcement in June that he would be leaving the IMA to become director at the Philbrook Museum in Oklahoma didn’t help matters. But Venable, who hired Stulen in 2014, doesn’t think rushing to find another version of the curator is going to boost attendance. For one thing, the director notes there aren’t a lot of people out there like Stulen. And as popular as Stulen’s programs were in the media, Venable says mini golf, for example, performed more or less as the IMA expected—a hit, but not a blockbuster.

The real potential for growth, in Venable’s mind, lies in areas one might not even associate with the museum: the gardens and holiday experiences. The IMA’s gardens are fairly unique—just a few other art institutions have that kind of spread, and none of those exist in the Midwest. “All of the trend lines say millenials want to be outdoors more than indoors,” he says. “Attendance inside museums has been pretty flat since the 1980s. So we’re planting 100,000 tulips that will bloom this March. We’ve never done anything like that. We’re thinking of spring as an exhibition at the IMA.”

In addition to beefing up landscaping and programming in the gardens, Venable says that Christmas at the IMA’s Lilly House will transform from a modest display of decorations into a much larger holiday light installation in 2017. The goal when it’s fully finished in 2019: attracting 75,000 people there that December alone, almost half of what the museum currently gets all year.

Traditional exhibitions will continue to have their place, too. A show like Audubon’s Birds of America, which opens next April, isn’t going to bring the 60,000 people that Dream Cars did in 2015, but it does promise to have some commercial appeal. That’s in keeping with Venable’s common-man approach since he arrived. “Should I spend $1 million on an exhibit of Japanese painting from the Edo period, which might be exactly what a scholar here is working on?” he asks, rhetorically. “Is that worth $1 million to this community for the 5,000 people who would show up? Or should I put $500,000 into an exhibit with equally good scholarship that might appeal to 100,000? That’s a difficult question to answer—and we actually have to answer it. Most of the people who challenge you don’t ever have to.”

Clearly, Venable pays close attention to the numbers. Despite the CEO’s assurance that 160,000 was satisfactory attendance last year, industry experts say he can’t be happy with that for a campus as expansive as the IMA’s. But Venable’s focus has been on another figure: draw from endowment. The 8 percent the IMA was spending just a few years ago has dropped to nearly 5. In April, the board rewarded him with an unusually long 10-year contract extension. That spurred the familiar vitriol on Twitter and Facebook insisting Venable had no business running a museum the size of the IMA. His critics could be wrong in at least that respect, though. The museum he’s running might never have enjoyed the crowds those detractors remember. By attendance, it’s certainly nowhere near that large today.