Recently, I was asked how we can afford to be free and open 365 days a year. My answer was simply, “How can we afford not to be?”
One of the three basic tenets of our business model is accessibility. Accessibility is more than just compliance with Federal and State regulations on physical accessibility with barrier-free facilities. It also applies to intellectual, geographic, and cultural accessibility. Being open 365 days a year and offering free general admission is one important way we make ourselves accessible to the widest audience possible.
Why free? Free is one of the most beautiful words in the English language. We at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts know that admission fees to museums are in direct competition with more important financial choices in this current fiscal climate. As an institution dedicated to serving all Virginians, being free is important. It means that everyone can come and visit without a barrier. Now, more than ever, we are working overtime to dispel the elitist image that many people still associate with art museums.
So how do we do it? We are able to do it in part because of the generosity and support of our VMFA Members, Trustees and Foundation Directors. It is also all about priorities. When we begin our budgeting process each year, maintaining our 365 day schedule and free general admission is as basic as our care for the museum’s wonderful permanent collections. One other perspective is the business formula we follow. We believe offering free admission generates traffic, lots of it. We’ve had more than a million and a half visitors since we reopened in May 2010. That traffic generates business – business for our store, the Best Cafe, and Amuse Restaurant. Add to that the stellar business of our store and food service – they know how to produce a sensational product and understand the importance of great customer service! Free admission to the permanent collection also generates traffic for our special exhibitions and that’s where it counts. A half dozen years ago, with both a suggested donation admission policy and a contribution box sitting at the front door, we rarely generated more than a few hundred thousand dollars a year in admission revenue. It didn’t even pay for our admissions staff and associated expenses. And our average attendance was only 300,000 a year. Now, with free general admission, an admission charge (for non-members) to attend our robust and varied offering of special exhibitions, admission revenues have increased and our average attendance since reopening is a half million visitors a year. Plus, our membership ranks have skyrocketed from just under 7,000 households in early 2010 to more than 37,000 today! The arithmetic is pretty simple.
So, you see, free admission is not only good business, it’s good for business. I love it when I hear people answer the question about our operating hours, “Oh, they’re always open.” And we are. I look forward to seeing you soon and often.
Alex Nyerges, Director