The Minneapolis Institute of Art has had free general admission for decades. Special Exhibitions are ticketed.
Admission revenue is a portion of earned revenue of course, but in my experience other kinds of support (contributed revenue, membership, endowment draw, government support, grants, foundations, retail, parking, etc.) make up the major percentage of revenue for most museums and are likely to outpace admission fees. I'm certain there are exceptions to this, perhaps others will weigh in with their experiences.
Assuming that attendance is a major goal, free admission may help drive that measure (although that claim is in dispute, see http://colleendilen.com/2015/08/12/how-free-admission-really-affects-museum-attendance-data/ ). If attendance is up, other sources of revenue may also trend upward - like pulling the levers of a larger "machine".
I'd recommend examining the gross and net (calculated against *all* costs including HR) of admissions revenue in order to make an informed decision.
All the best,
In reference to free admission, I think that is totally dependant on the local of your museum. The Abbe Museum is in downtown Bar Harbor, ME, as well as a second small location in Acadia National Park, both premier vacation destinations. Our population explodes in the summer and dies off in the winter. There are not a huge amount of year around residents. A good majority of our guests in the peak season are one time visitors, they are those visiting tourists. Many have come of cruise ships and have a limited time to see as much as they can. The percentage of these who would be open to buying memberships is little to none. We do participate in garnering other kind of funding, grants, stipends, donations, etc. We do have locals who are loyal members, but that small admission ($8.00 to visit both locations) that we charge makes a huge difference in our income and how we are able to serve the public. For museums located in a more metropolitan area, free might work well, but in our location it does not. That being said, the local bank does sponsor us in the winter so that we can offer free admission all winter long to the local residents.
Museums are free-choice institutions. Aside from school kids, no one has to visit. Those who visit get benefits from their visit in exchange for their effort, time and often money. These exchanges are among the indicators of the value of the benefits to them. In classical demand economics, reducing any one of these three categories of barriers should increase demand. In the real world, a visitor's perceived value of an experience is a sum of many factors. Perversely, a high fee can heighten perceived value (King Tut).
The thorough discussion in the link Douglas Hedley posted highlights that each museum has its own context -- business model, key service markets, etc. Elaine Gurian's essay "Free at last." makes a strong case for free admission.
However, the free museum question is really one of degree: All museums have some free aspects and some paid aspects. The high price New England Aquarium offers a free seal pond; the free Victoria and Albert Museum charges for special exhibitions. So the question is really "how much of your museum should be free and how much paid?
We have been a free museum since we opened in 1855 (free is in our name and in our charter). Because of this, I can't offer any insight into how this has changed our finances, but I do have an interest in hearing from other free museums how they create incentives for membership.
We have a membership program that is not very strong and we're trying to revamp, but we struggle with creating financial benefits considering admission is always free to our museum and programs. We do have a free reception for members every year (non-members have to pay to come) and our annual fundraising gala has a discount for members, but beyond that we'd love to hear how others are creating financial incentives for membership even when their museums are free.
Unless the museum has put in action-oriented steps towards their (insert number here here) plan, met/is close as they can get to campaign goals, the local economy is relatively stable AND their is an already strong membership base, I think that having free admission isn't financially feasible for a museum to have free admission.
Take into the consideration what happened to the Detroit Institute of Arts. A few years ago, they participated in the Michigan Adventure Pass program which allowed people to check out free passes to the museum for two to four people for consecutive days. Over 49,000 people participated in the program, which costed the museum $295,000 in revenue over two years, which equated to $147,000 per year. At this time, of course, the DIA was still inquiring basic operational costs. Their public relations director went forward in 2009 and said the museum was pulling out of the program because it was costing the museum "badly needed revenue". According to their 1090s (public information found on GuideStar) around that time (maybe a year or two on either side, I don't quite remember) the DIA had over $10.8 million in conditional pledges (pledges that are received when/if/only donor conditions are met). I don't know if those were met. In addition to the auto industry collapse that took place around that time, which affected the entire city, esp non-profits since they were donors themselves. Although the MAP wasn't the sole reason why the DIA was having a hard time at the time, it sure didn't help. I am so glad that things have picked back up there because they have absolutely amazing exhibitions and innovative and immersive programming.
Most museums have at least one day out of the week (here in Houston its Thursday) that museums are free. Also, BOA cardholders get in free 1st weekend of the month.
American Alliance of Museums2451 Crystal Drive, Suite 1005Arlington, VA 22202