NYC Museums are Drawing Record Crowds

Crain’s Magazine

Picture this: NYC museums are drawing record crowds for cheaper entertainment given the still shaky economy, and a number of strong exhibitions is drawing massive crowds to many institutions.

At the Guggenheim Museum, average monthly attendance so far this year is up 28% over last year. During the mid-April spring break week, the museum had the highest attendance ever recorded for that time period since it began tracking figures in 1992.

Throngs of people are lining up each day outside the Cooper-Hewitt,National Design Museum to see “Set in Style: The Jewelry of Van Cleef & Arpels.” The show is attracting more than 9,000 visitors a week, a record for the museum. Overall, the Cooper-Hewitt estimates its total attendance for the year will end up at 235,000, a 26% jump from last year.

“People are becoming members [of the museum] at the door just so they can go right into the show,” said Caroline Baumann, associate director of the Cooper-Hewitt, which will close in July for two years for a major expansion. “We have to put special systems in place to manage the crowds.”

Museum experts say attendance often grows during recessions. A study released last month by the American Association of Museums found that 50% of the nation’s museums had more visitors last year, with 32% reporting a significant increase. Though the recession is technically over, arts observers say many New Yorkers are still unsure economically and are taking their vacations at home. At the same time, international tourists are flocking to the city to take advantage of the weak dollar.

Less costly shows

The Metropolitan Museum of Art already enjoyed record attendance of 5.2 million during the past fiscal year, ended June 30. Officials at the museum say this year’s attendance is on track to at least equal that number. The Met’s current exhibition of Paul Cézanne’s card player paintings brings in 4,500 visitors on weekend days, and the Costume Institute show on the late designer Alexander McQueen, which opens this week, is expected to attract crowds.

Interestingly, the success at the gate comes as many museums have been forced by a drop in funding to build less costly shows around their own collections instead of bringing in popular but expensive loan shows.

At the Guggenheim right now, for example, there are no collections from Armani or motorcycle shows. The crowds are coming for a simpler exhibit from the museum’s own holdings titled “The Great Upheaval: Modern Art from the Guggenheim Collection, 1910- 1918,” which features a number of paintings recycled from the museum’s previous show.

“Museums are looking at their own collections and repackaging things in ways that are really fresh or more appealing to people,” observed Joe Harrell, director of marketing and product management at the Alliance for the Arts. “If you have a Picasso exhibit or expressionists in New York,people are going to eat it up, because this is what they think of when they think of these institutions.”

Despite museums’ newfound popularity, the earned income from the increased attendance hasn’t been enough to make up for the financial losses from cuts in government and private funding during the recession. Art experts say that for every dollar museums take in from visitors, they have to raise $3 from donors to keep operations going.

The American Museum of Natural History has two shows right now—“The World’s Largest Dinosaurs” and “Brain: The Inside Story”—that are full to capacity.But executives there said the admissions income will barely make a dent in a decreased endowment and the loss of some city and corporate funding.

Budgets remain depressed

El Museo del Barrio had one of its most popular exhibitions ever this past fall: “Nueva York 1613- 1945.” The show, presented with the New-York Historical Society, brought in 54,000 people and received rave reviews.

And since El Museo del Barrio reopened in the fall of 2009 after a major renovation, attendance has more than doubled, reaching 250,000 visitors last year.

But earned revenue makes up only 7% of the museum’s budget. With major cuts in corporate and especially government support, El Museo del Barrio must reduce its operating budget to $4.5 million from $6 million for the next fiscal year. Still, museum officials anticipate some tangible benefits from all this newfound popularity.

“Fundraising has gone down; it’s been tough with the recession,” said Suzy Delvalle,director of external affairs and development at El Museo. “But our renovation has been transformational. The bigger attendance numbers are great and will help us with fundraising going forward.”!

 

BY MIRIAM KREININ SOUCCAR / May 2, 2011 – Crain’s Magazine