Monday, April 2, 2012

Big Idea, Small Museum

To boldly go...       (Photo: Children's Museum of Tacoma)
A bold idea began taking shape at a Children’s Museum of Tacoma (CMT) board retreat in January 2010. In the thick of developing a strategic plan and in the midst of an expansion involving a move, Executive Director Tanya Andrews presented her board with seven big ideas. Big Idea #3 was going to a pay as you will, or no admission, fee.

To contextualize their decision-making, Tanya shared information from a community scan. Pierce County where Tacoma (WA) is located is one of the poorest counties in the state. In numerous areas within the city children experience multiple risk factors; two military installations, one of which is a mega-base are located in the County. Tanya asked, “If I told you that all you had to do is replace $50,000 in earned revenue and CMT could drop admission, what would you choose to do?”

It was, Tanya said, the quickest vote ever. The board decided to adopt a pay as you will plan.

Being Free
Being accessible to audiences regardless of economic, educational, and ethnic backgrounds, is something museums value and strive towards. Like the Children’s Museum of Tacoma, they also value and strive for financial stability. Balancing the two is a real challenge. Many museums have weekly free days and reduced admission for school or community groups. Blue Star Museums offer free admission to military families. Access programs with free memberships or free admission for low-income families are distributed through partner organizations.  Designated funds within the annual fund,  gala income, and sponsorships such as Target Foundation’s free days grants help address the financial stability side of increasing access.

Working with its funders, CMT had been offering Free Fridays, library pass, and free Market Play Days following the Farmer’s Market. About half CMT’s guests were visiting the museum for free or reduced fee. That, however, didn’t add up to access.

The idea of free museums has long been a topic of discussion. Elaine Gurian has championed dropping the charges. In her 2005 article, Free at Last: A Case for Museums Eliminating Admission Charges in Museums, in Museums, Gurian argued that, “…general admission charges are the single greatest impediment to making our museums truly and fully accessible.” Free admission, however, is not unknown. The Smithsonian Institution is free to visitors as are national museums in the UK, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. Museums like the Minneapolis Institute of Arts that receive city tax revenue have free daily admission; government support helps make this possible.

In choosing to drop admission, in this case without government support, CMT committed itself to a bold idea, something Anne Ackerson recently wrote about on Leading by Design. In “The Powerful Force of a Big Idea,” she rightfully point out, “Big ideas are critical fuel for the nonprofit engine.” Children’s Museum of Tacoma is running with a big idea that is fueling its new future.

Seeing Things Differently
CMT is much larger in its ambition to be accessible to its audience than its physical footprint might suggest. From 1996 through 2011, CMT’s home was a 4,000 square feet storefront in Tacoma’s Theater District. In January 2012, CMT opened in a renovated 8,000 square feet (SF) facility with 6,000 SF of exhibits. The museum is now much more visible in the Museum District, an area the Mayor calls the “front porch of the community.” Located on Pacific Avenue, the downtown’s main drag with the University of Washington-Tacoma at the end of the block, the museum is steps away from a stop on the free light rail.

At its previous site CMT served 45,000 visitors annually; half paid reduced or no admission. Annual admission income was $50,000; this was part of CMT’s 30% earned/70% contributed income ratio that compared to the roughly 50/50 mix for many children’s museums. CMT has always struggled with earned revenue, Tanya says.

As part of its 2010 retreat, the board focused on finding a new way to balance the challenge of earned revenue, a goal of financial stability, and a commitment to serving low-income families. It interpreted the high rate of free admission as evidence of serving low-income families, rather than as low earned revenue. It identified barriers to access where the museum might have some control; cost was one.

The board also looked at opportunities presented by the capital campaign CMT was conducting for its expansion project. Building on the six million dollar capital campaign, the board decided to raise another million dollars to make up for the admission revenue the museum would forgo with Pay as You Will admission. After considering several scenarios, the board decided to pay a fixed monthly amount to cover the museum’s rent from its million-dollar fund, drawing it down over ten years.

Setting Things in Motion
Groundwork for this initiative included research and talking with funders. Tanya checked with Janet Rice Elman, Executive Director of the Association of Children’s Museum and with other museums to learn about free museums. She found some public museums that are free; CMT was the only private museum going free.

A conversation with a funder, Key Bank was critical in moving the plan forward. Key Bank had been funding the museum’s library pass program and was looking to have a greater impact. Over the course of two years and multiple conversations, Key Bank came on board with a gift of $250,000 towards the million-dollar goal.

Tanya honed a set of talking points merging mission, values, a sense of experimentation, and gut feeling. Although resistance to the idea was slight, she was prepared when a lead donor pushed back on the concept. He understood free days, but didn’t agree with museums giving things away for free. Why should he support this? Tanya explained, “When low-income families come on Fridays during free times, it further segregates our community. But when Mom A and Mom B are here and they share a love for their child, they have that in common. If any museum should be free, it should be children’s museums.” (The donor did give a large gift to the capital campaign which Tanya thinks he was going to do anyway.)

Equally bold as deciding on Pay as You Will admission, the museum decided to increase its earned revenue contribution from 30% to 70% of the budget. Contributing to that increase would be membership, more birthday parties and programs, and café revenue.

With Pay as You Will, CMT recognized membership needed to be attractive. In revising its membership program, the museum decided to appeal to two segments. Some families would purchase memberships from a philanthropic stance of wanting to help others.  Others would be interested in purchasing convenience and exclusivity. CMT enhanced membership benefits with member-only play times, free parking, and express entrance that bypassed orientation.

The museum works hard so visitors know about Pay as You Will admission. Callers hear about Pay As You Will on the recorded telephone message with hours and directions. Multiple screens explain, mention, and highlight CMT’s admission policy on the website. Yet, in spite of publicity generated by CMTs opening and free admission, many families still don’t know about it. Staff is prepared for a conversation when visitors arrive. Proud of being a free museum, all staff have their own story about Pay as You Will that might go something like, “Our museum is special; you can pay as much or as little as you want.”

Good Results and Counting
Across the board, indicators suggest the plan is working. Results from 10 weeks of Pay as You Will not only meet, but exceed CMT’s target, an intentionally conservative one. The museum had budgeted $10,000 from voluntary admission donations for the 20 weeks from January 14 to the end of its fiscal year, May 31. In half that time, the museum has received five-times as much–$50,000–in admission contributions. One-in-four general visitors (almost 90% of non-member visiting families) contribute an average of $11/family or $2.82/person.

Projected attendance for the first 12 months was set as a range from 100,000 to 125,000 visitors. Based on attendance so far, CMT is on track to serve 160,000 to 175,000 visitors in the first 12 months. Membership has almost doubled above projected.

Equally important, the museum says it is welcoming families from more ethnically and economically diverse backgrounds in the area. A zip code survey, now underway, will provide additional evidence of what neighborhoods are represented.

Every museum that opens or re-opens is challenged to estimate how long the initial benefit period will last. A combination of being new and being bigger-and-better typically generates greater attention. CMT must also distinguish between the effect of Pay as You Will and a new venue in a bigger facility in a more visible location. Donations, membership, attendance are likely to drop off; when is a question yet to be answered.

Every new or expanded museum also must work with all new benchmarks in planning its first budgets. CMT is doing so currently in developing its FY13 budget. January - May actuals provide real, but still anomalous figures in place of pre-opening projections. Museum leadership has the opportunity to decide how to allocate January-May surplus and project earned revenue for FY13.

Learning as You Go
Big ideas should be appreciated and monitored for their experimental spirit. Tanya views Pay as You Will as a work-in-progress. I consider CMT’s bold move a strategic experiment. Calling for or wanting free admission is one thing. Figuring out how to do it and making the transition to a completely new way to serve the community is quite different. Many things must align: values, getting board and staff to commit; funder understanding and support; a revised business model; and an implementation plan including marketing and staff training.

CMT’s commitment to Pay As You Will is five years, and hopefully 10. After five years, the board intends to review the broad initiative and decide whether and how to renew it and ramp up for the next five years.

I plan to check-in with Tanya in the coming year. I look forward to hearing about and sharing what CMT is learning, how donated admissions keep up, and how it allocates its contributed admissions. I invite you to come along.

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