Service and Struggle in the Shadow of Economic Recovery: U.S. Museums in 2012

American Alliance of Museums Study Finds Museums Still Face Financial Challenges, Yet Continue to Serve Larger Audiences

WASHINGTON, D.C. April 23, 2013—In the fourth year of the Great Recession, Americans continued to turn to the nation’s museums for affordable enrichment, enlightenment and entertainment. The Annual Condition of Museums and the Economy (ACME) survey conducted by the American Alliance of Museums found that a majority of museums served an increased number of visitors in 2012—continuing a trend since 2009—even while fully two-thirds of respondents reported some degree of financial stress at their institution. The good news: this is the lowest level of reported financial stress in four years, evidence that museums are part of the slow but steady rebound of the economy as a whole.

As the largest service and advocacy organization for the museum field—serving art museums to zoos and all types of museums in between—the Alliance initiated the ACME survey in January 2010, in the wake of economic downturn. Download the full 2013 report (an accessible 11 pages, complete with a four-year trend analysis) from the Alliance website.

“Once again, Americans are finding what one museum researcher has called ‘respite and renewal’ in their museums during stubbornly uncertain and sluggish economic times,” said Alliance president Ford W. Bell. “Museums retain their special status with the public as places where they can re-connect with their values and with our shared heritage—historic, artistic, scientific and natural.”

Other key findings of ACME 2013 include:

  • 72% of museums reported steady or increased attendance, with an average increase across all museums of 4.3% in the number of visitors.
  • The median price of an adult general admission ticket to a U.S. museum remained just $7—unchanged in the past three years—while 37% of museums were always free to visitors. Nearly all museums (92%) are free to the public on at least some occasions.
  • While the reports of economic stress decreased in 2012, the results also highlight the depths of the recession in 2009. As one museum director put it, “2012 was a good year for us; 2009 was one of the worst years.”
  • For the first time in four years, more museums reported an annual increase in total revenues than reported a decrease. In every revenue category except one, museums were more likely to see increases than decreases in revenue.

  • The one exception: support from all levels of government. A total of 35% of museums reported decreases in government support in 2012, with just 14% reporting increases.

  • The future is also looking somewhat brighter for museums that “have been weathering this ‘economic storm’ since 2008,” as one director put it. More than three-quarters of museums look forward to increased or steady budgets in 2013 and 30% of respondents say that economic conditions will be better or much better for their institutions this year.

“Four years have taken their toll on museums,” says Philip M. Katz, the Alliance’s assistant director for research and author of the ACME report. “Museums have relied on budget-saving measures – including staff freezes and deferred maintenance—but also creativity and a strong sense of mission to keep serving their communities. But the dark economic clouds really are starting to part.”  

The real but modest gains in 2012 have not replaced the significant losses of 2009-2011, as America’s museums continue to serve more people with fewer resources, including filling gaps in the social safety net.

About the American Alliance of Museums

The American Alliance of Museums has been bringing museums together since 1906, helping to develop standards and best practices, gathering and sharing knowledge, and providing advocacy on issues of concern to the entire museum community. With more than 18,000 individual, 3,000 institutional and 300 corporate members, the Alliance is dedicated to ensuring that museums remain a vital part of the American landscape, connecting people with the greatest achievements of the human experience, past, present and future. For more information, visit www.aam-us.org.

Media Contact

Dewey Blanton
Alliance Communications
(202) 218-7704