Admission to an art museum in the US might set you back $15 or $25 or nothing at all, depending on where and who you are. But a new study that sets out to measure the societal value of museums in monetary terms estimates that a single visit will pay dividends many times over in benefits to your well-being, equivalent to more than $900 per adult visitor.
Eleven medium to large US art museums participated in the study, conducted by the Oregon-based Institute for Learning Innovation, including the Barnes Foundation; Cleveland Museum of Art; Denver Art Museum; Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Milwaukee Art Museum; Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art; New Orleans Museum of Art; Oakland Museum of California; Saint Louis Art Museum and Walters Art Museum. The findings were presented at the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) annual conference in Denver last month.
Researchers collected the data from a randomised sample of 1,942 adults who visited the participating museums between May and September 2022. One group was asked to assess whether their experience of visiting an art museum improved their well-being across four different dimensions—personal, intellectual, social and physical—and to estimate how long they felt each of those positive effects lasted afterwards. The survey focused, for instance, on variables such as whether visitors felt relaxed and refreshed, whether the museum experience gave them a sense of awe and whether it had opened up new perspectives in their thinking.
A second group of participants was asked to state how much money they thought each well-being benefit was worth on a sliding scale from zero to $1,000, depending on how long it might last—with durations ranging from an hour or two up to a month or more.
According to the final technical report, more than 95% of participants reported some benefits to their well-being after visiting a museum and 85% indicated positive effects in all four areas. Most respondents estimated that their museum visit had an impact well beyond the couple of hours they had spent on site. On average, the social and physical well-being benefits were perceived to last for a full day afterwards, compared to three days for the intellectual benefits and nearly a week in enhanced personal well-being.
The researchers determined the overall “public value” of art museum visits based on “the sum of the four well-being-related benefits”. The average dollar figures assigned by the second group of visitors to each category were then added together to reach a total economic value of $905 in “multi-day benefits” per individual adult visit.
Multiplying that figure by the mean number of annual museum visitors across the 11 institutions led the researchers to calculate that: “On average, each of these museums annually delivered in excess of $325m in well-being-related economic value to their users.” A cost-benefit analysis that factored in the museums’ mean annual operating costs estimated that every $1 spent generated well-being benefits to visitors worth $12.
The report notes that around 57.5m US adults—24% of the population—visited an art museum or gallery in 2017, according to data collected by the National Endowment for the Arts. Projecting the well-being data on a national scale, then, the authors estimate that “art museums annually generate on the order of $52bn in public, well-being-related, economic value”.
The value of culture has long been notoriously difficult to measure. For the study’s lead author John Falk, the founder of the Institute for Learning Innovation, such research is all the more timely in the current post-pandemic climate. Decades of “increasing scrutiny” on museums and “the public value they create” came to a head during the Covid-19 pandemic, he says, when cultural institutions around the world remained closed for months as they were “deemed ‘unessential’” to society. That in turn placed many museums under financial pressure: the AAM warned in June 2021 that the pandemic had caused “dire economic harm” to US museums and predicted that “the field faces a long road to recovery”.
“Museums find themselves constantly asked by policy makers to justify their budgets,” Falk says. He views the new research as a potential “breakthrough” in understanding the benefits of museum visitor experiences “through the lens of human well-being”. It is, he says, “an important first step in allowing art museum leaders to begin to quantitatively address questions about their public value”.
“For funders and policy makers, this research provides a compelling, quantitative argument that thriving, well-supported cultural institutions are not ‘nice-to-haves’, they are ‘need-to-haves’ and that the return on their investment is significant and multi-faceted,” says Will Cary, the chief operating officer of the Barnes Foundation.
The 11 participating museums welcomed the study in a joint statement as “a promising new model for institutional collaboration” that “will help guide our work to continuously enhance the value of the museum experience”. At the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, for example, the findings will inform future strategies to improve well-being through programming, gallery interpretation and visitor amenities, says its director and chief executive, Julián Zugazagoitia.
A number of museum representatives are now working on a follow-up report with recommendations for how the wider sector can implement the well-being research in practice. And since the AAM conference, Falk adds, more than a dozen museum leaders have volunteered their organisations for further study.