More People are Visiting Museums Despite the Recession
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.