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The Freegan Museum: Notes from an Experiment in Progress.

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

This Monday I posted some brief thoughts on free museum memberships, sparked by the experiment being launched by the Dallas Museum of Art. Bob Barzan, director of the Modesto Art Museum wrote to share his museum’s experience with going free.

The Modesto Art Museum is eleven months into a long-term experiment with free membership for anyone who asks. Our situation is unusual in that Modesto is a poor city (unemployment topped 20% during the recession), has one of the lowest educational attainment rates in the country, and until the founding of the museum in 2005, was the largest metro area in the country (pop. 510,000) without a nonprofit art museum. There was no tradition of art museum membership or support in the city. The Modesto Art Museum is small, our budget this year will be under $70,000. We are offering free memberships in an effort to increase both the number and quality of personal encounters with the museum because we see this as instrumental to accomplishing our mission.
Though official membership doubled to about 150, it is still very small, but I think official membership is becoming less and less important as a way to engage people. We realized more than ever that membership does not equal engagement, that some of our biggest donors and engaged supporters are not members and don’t feel a need to be. This seems to be so especially with the young. At one point we had no official members under 40, but they are among our most engaged supporters.
Free membership was one way we thought we could engage more people; but we also extended our policy of free admission to all events except fund raisers. I think it is important that we are doing both free memberships and free admissions together, but I think free admission is going to be more important in the long run.
Tours during Architecture Festival, photo
courtesy of Modest Art Museum

For example, this year the 5th annual Modesto International Architecture Festival, the largest architecture festival in the country, was nine days with dozens of events, all free. Several thousand people attended (up from 800 the year before), we received extensive media coverage, many dozens of people volunteered (we lost count), and it attracted enough corporate sponsorships and individual donations to pay for itself.

It is still too early to know where this experiment will take the museum. I think it could lead to the abandonment of official memberships all together. Here is what we have so far:

  1. More people are attending museum events than ever, up dramatically from previous records
  2. Many more people are volunteering, some taking on difficult tasks of research or fund raising
  3. It appears we will finish the year with both total contributions and number of donors up slightly
  4. In kind contributions from corporations and community organizations will be up dramatically
  5. Foundation and corporate cash support will be up significantly
  6. Facebook followers have doubled to 421. This is important because we get some of our demographic information from Facebook, and it has become a primary daily two-way communication opportunity
  7. We survey people at our events and exhibits to capture more demographic information including age, sex, zip code, and how they learn about museum events, but it is too early to make conclusions about what we are learning.
My concerns are:
  1. Will these positive trends continue and are they the result of our changes or an improved economy, both or something else all together?
  2. Will we be able to meet the budget demands of the future?
  3. How dedicated are people to the museum?
  4. And most importantly, is this helping us accomplish our mission?
One side note on the positive side for the future is that, if eliminating memberships works, we can change membership services saving time, energy, and resources.
If readers have advice or suggestions, I am happy to hear them. My sense is we are breaking new ground and that makes me both nervous and excited, most of all, though, I am optimistic.
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