Rafi Mohammed

How Much Money to See the Mona Lisa: The Pricing Debate at Museums

Posted on August 2nd, 2007 (0 Comments)

Want a surefire way to ruffle a crowd of museum aficionados…discuss pricing! I discovered this first hand last year when I participated in investment banker Herb Allen’s annual Berkshires arts conference. At the end of my session, it was clear that some attendees viewed my value pricing ideas and me as the antichrist. Many passionately believe that art should be free and available to everyone.

Alan Riding recently wrote an interesting article in the New York Times (“Seducing France Into Affairs of the Art”) that describes the latest museum pricing debate. Here are the facts: At notable French museums like the Louve and Musee d’Orsay, admission prices run from $9 - $12. Two thirds of all museum visitors are foreign tourists. Of the remaining 1/3 visits made by French citizens, interestingly 70% are made using discounts (e.g., low prices for unemployed, elderly, children, family, disabled, etc.).

Here’s the key issue. The French government wants more of its citizens to visit their country’s museums. Care to guess how they plan on doing this? Yup…making admission free for e-v-e-r-y-o-n-e, which would result in a loss of $140 million per year in ticket sales…can you hear my deep sigh?

Since I’m in a good mood today, I thought I’d give the French cultural ministry some free pricing advice…

Why not just eliminate fees for citizens and continue charging foreigners? Doing this would be understandable (and “fair”) since citizens support museums through taxes. This type of pricing is common: Disneyland often offers lower prices to California residents, and state colleges charge lower tuition to instate vs. out of state residents…an easy fix.

Charge higher prices. A higher price with more amenities (e.g., smaller crowds, guided tours, etc) will boost revenues but more importantly, may attract influential trendsetters that otherwise might not visit the museum. For example, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art occasionally opens its doors on Mondays (a day when it is normally closed) to well coiffed visitors willing to pay $50.

Don’t offer free days…offer “pay what you’d like” days. As many as 50,000 people take advantage of the Louve’s free admission offer on the first Sunday of every month. Why not give these art lovers the opportunity to pay what they think a visit is worth?

I wouldn’t just yet give up on charging French nationals for admission. My bet is that there is a set of early bird, regular, and chef’s table strategies that can both boost museum visits and collect revenue.

My advice to the French cultural ministry is to forget about free admission and focus on creating a multi-price mindset that will boost French attendance as well as collect revenues. I’d then invest these admission euros into marketing programs to attract target growth segments and exciting exhibits that will draw new visitors.

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