Measuring and Monetizing Visitor Experiences at Arts + Culture Museums

by: Nicole Davis
Verified by: CPA

February 21, 2024

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In the summer of 2023, the Institute for Learning Innovation, in collaboration with eleven top museums around the United States, released a groundbreaking study that empirically measured the value museums give to their visitors. 

The study was unveiled and discussed at the 2023 American Alliance of the Museums Annual Meeting in Denver, which Smith + Howard was lucky enough to attend. Of all the sessions held during the conference, this was one of the most powerful, underscoring the significant impact that arts and culture institutions have on our society. 

In this update, we share the key findings of the research and highlight some of the steps arts and culture nonprofits can take to better measure and monetize visitor experiences at their institutions. 

The Value of Museums Study: A Primer

The study was created with the goal of giving museums the ability to communicate the value of museum experiences to policymakers in language these decision-makers understand, therefore paving the way for museums to unlock greater financial support to execute their mission. 

To do so, the study used a variety of empirical methods to measure the well-being effects experienced by visitors to eleven mid-sized museums located across the United States: The Barnes Foundation, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Denver Art Museum, the Hillwood Museum and Garden, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Milwaukee Art Museum, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, the New Orleans Museum of Art, the Oakland Museum of California, the Saint Louis Art Museum, and the Walters Art Museum.

The study surveyed close to 2,000 museum visitors, asking participants to complete one survey during their visit, and another a month later. The second survey was split into two groups: one group was asked to rate the wellbeing effects of their visit, while the second group was asked to assign a monetary value to the same set of effects.

These effects were measured across four spheres: personal, intellectual, social, and physical. 

Key Findings for Arts and Culture Institutions

The study had several landmark findings that serve as strong evidence of the positive effect of museums on visitor health. Among the most important was the quantifiable impact that visits to museums have on an individual’s wellbeing. The study found that individuals assigned the following value to the perceived health improvements they received from their museum visit:

  • Personal Wellbeing: $270.00
  • Intellectual Wellbeing: $227.05
  • Social Wellbeing: $207.42
  • Physical Wellbeing: $200.48

Together, these wellbeing values add up to an average total wellbeing value of $904.95. In short, that means that individuals who attended one of the museums included in the study placed an average economic value of over $900 on impact of their visit. Many participants in the study reported these benefits lasting over periods of days or even weeks, with very few participants reporting that they received no benefit from their visit to the museum. 

The average museum in the study reported that they welcomed around 360,000 visitors each year. Extrapolating these results, that means that the institutions included in the survey created a mean total value of over $355 million to their visitors each year – representing a huge economic impact on each museum’s community.

The study’s authors went a step further, performing a cost-benefit analysis to determine the average cost to deliver these wellbeing benefits. The museums included in the survey reported average running costs of $27.8 million each year, meaning that museums generated $12 of benefit for every $1 of cost, on average. 

In general, industry commentators have noted that a cost-benefit ratio above 2:1 is considered strong for nonprofits, so for these arts and cultural institutions to deliver a 12:1 ratio was somewhat of a staggering result. However, the results were not an outlier: a similar study performed in Finland had found almost identical results. 

A comprehensive technical report detailing the study’s methodology and findings is available on the Institute for Learning Innovation website

How Can Arts and Culture Institutions Use These Insights to Better Measure and Monetize Visitor Experiences?

After the pandemic, many arts and cultural institutions had a tough road to recovery. But this data underscores these institutions’ importance to the health of their communities, providing them with tangible data to make their case for renewed investment in their programs. 

Many museum leaders are already using this data to secure the backing of their board, donors, and external funding agencies to launch new programs targeted at various groups, from young children to retirees. For museums that receive funding from local governments, this figure is important evidence of the returns on the local government’s investment. 

As more and more nonprofit organizations strive to become more savvy in how they use data to measure and monetize visitor experiences, it’s expected that there will be more studies conducted to explore the wellbeing effect visitors enjoy from visiting other types of cultural institutions. 

At Smith + Howard, our professionals will continue to monitor the latest research in this area and keep our clients updated on any new developments. Our arts and culture nonprofit accounting professionals invest significant time in staying up-to-date on the latest industry developments and best practices.

To learn more about our accounting, advisory, and assurance services for arts and culture institutions, contact an advisor today

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