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Dec. 16 2009 - 11:14 pm | 69 views | 2 recommendations | 11 comments

More People are Visiting Museums Despite the Recession

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

One would think that in the recession less people would be going to museums, especially given the recent findings by the NEA saying that the number of Americans attending cultural events is at its lowest since 1982 (when the NEA first began keeping track). But The Art Newspaper reports otherwise. According to a poll of twenty museums in the United States, the newspaper says two-thirds have seen “a clear increase in visitor numbers over the past three years.”

The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) reported a surge in attendance in the past three years and from 2008 to 2009 the museum had its best year in its 80-year history, with 2.8 million people passing through its doors. This is due in part to its concentration on contemporary art, which was apparently more of a draw than other genres. The Guggenheim also reported a record for the year. Its Frank Lloyd Wright retrospective that coincided with the museum’s 50th anniversary this summer was the best attended show ever, attracting 572,000 visitors to the Wright-designed building.

The Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago had a solo exhibition by the Danish artist Olafur Eliasson from May 2008 until September 2009 and, though a long exhibition, it still garnered the museum a record 164,946 visiters alone. If it was somehow calculable, I am sure many times that saw Eliasson’s waterfall projects in New York in 2008, one of which spouted a stream of water from a scaffolding built under the Brooklyn Bridge.

Other museums that did well included the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, The National Gallery, and The Art Institute of Chicago. The Art Newspaper cites the completion of the recent expansion at the Art Institute of Chicago as a factor in the museum pulling in big crowds. The same was not the case for the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri. In June 2007, the Nelson-Atkins Museum put the final touches on a $95 million addition by architect Steven Holl, but attendance has dropped for the museum.

The survey results bode well for those museums who were able to pull in the crowds, either with blockbuster exhibitions, with consistently interesting shows, or with deep and diverse options to pull from their permanent holdings. The results do not, however, reflect the major hit many museums took in their endowments when the stock market crashed. Nor do these attendance numbers speak to the sizable number of employees who lost their jobs at museums in the last year and a half, or to the museums that have simply folded. In fact, just as The Art Newspaper reports on their survey, there’s news of the financial distress of the Fresno Metropolitan Museum, yet another cultural institution unable to keep its doors open.

The prevailing theory as to why some of these major museums have been able to keep attendance high during the recession is a bang for the buck factor. That even though museums can be expensive (MoMA: $20 admission), they are still worth it. I’d also offer that museums, like movie theaters, provide a necessary form of escapism in hard times. A blockbuster exhibition is akin to a blockbuster movie for many people. And a museum goer can contemplate and lose him or herself in a work of art, rather than be dragged down by the reality of a recession. When inside the doors of a museum, observing history and creative endeavors, there is the sense that life outside is suspended, put on hold for just long enough to put everything else aside.

via Museum attendance rises as the economy tumbles | The Art Newspaper.


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  1. collapse expand

    Museums help us remember who we are, by showing us what we have valued in the past. Although they might have an admittance fee, most are still cheaper than going skiing anywhere in the USA, and far cheaper than a day at Six Flag, or Disney. Part of the strangeness of the nouveau riche was they had plenty of money and did not know what to value.

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    The process of remembering who we are is not limited to the past, it is pointing forward to whom we may become. Just as in my first answer, there are two factors at work here: art and disposable income. Art is no longer seen as only the purview of the rich, and is more accessible to those of us who are not rich. Something else that cannot be ignored is the efforts that museums have made to change the view of exclusivity.

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    I find an afternoon looking at art restorative, far more so than reading or a movie or listening to music. I also appreciate seeing objects made and used 500 or 5,000 years ago — it certainly puts this decade, or century, into a larger perspective.

    Museums also have free or reduced admission nights, which helps. If you can stand to spend 2-4 hours looking at stuff (it gets tiring), that’s a lot of bang for the buck. You can also share the experience with a friend or family member.

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      Caitlin,

      I think for a museum like the Met or the Louvre, you pay with the understanding that you’ll have to pick a particular section to see. Then you may be back to see other parts after that. They can be exhausting, but it is the best ind of exhaustion, a total mental and experiential exhaustion.

      The free nights are a great thing at museums, bu I almost rather pay a bit and go when no one is there. Those free nights tend to get a little crowded for my taste.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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    One reason for the increase in museum traffic (or so I have heard) is that a lot more folks are not taking big vacations this year, and are thus getting around to some of the things in their area that they have taken for granted for years, decades or their entire lives. If you live in the New York metropolitan area, it is hard to argue with the price of the Met museum (free, though ticket prices are suggested).

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      Michael,

      The staycation–another one of those vocabulary terms invented during the recession–is more and more popular. And though I do think people should get out and see the world as much as possible, it’s nice to know what’s local too. If you are lucky to live in NY, then there is endless stuff to explore. One thing the article in The Art Newspaper pointed out is that the rise in museum attendance is happening for both museums that are free, or can be free, like the Met, and for museums that charge to get in the MoMA or the Neue Gallery.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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    Nick, I agree. I also prefer smaller museums like the Asia Society, Frick, Morgan and Japan Society — they usually have one show, no permanent collection to further entice you and you’re in and our within 60 to 90 minutes. The Japan Society is one of my favorites, and not very well known.

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      Caitlin,

      I have not gone to the Japan Society yet. I’ll have to check it out, but the Frick and the Morgan are two of my favorite small museums. Also the Neue gallery, which I mentioned in my previous response to Michael. They have in their permanent collection Adele Bloch-Bauer 1, an incredible Klimt that Ronald Lauder bought for the Neue for $135 million two years ago. It’s an amazing painting to look at.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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    I am a Brooklyn-based writer and editor covering arts and culture. I was an editor at Art & Antiques magazine, an editor at Picador USA, and an editor for a magazine about coffee and tea. On the best of days, I get to write about art, or work on fiction. My writing can be found on the Huffington Post, The Rumpus, and in Art & Antiques, Art in America, Tin House, Willamette Week, San Francisco magazine, Food Network Magazine, and Fresh Cup magazine. I also write about and promote the arts for Columbia University in New York.

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