Are Mega-Museums Too Big For Their Own Good?

Met crowds Left and top right; smaller museums lower right: New Museum and Whitney


Mega-institutions like the Met aren’t suffering from a lack of customers but the business model – and the consumer experience – is structurally broken.

The Met, along with many other major institutions around the country, are having significant problems staying afloat. The overhead is too high, even as museum visitors are pouring in at an unprecedented rate – 7MM this past year across all the Met venues. However, the revenues from ticket sales and retail are falling.

And the Met is not alone: MoMA, the Brooklyn Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art are all struggling to raise enough money to stay competitive and avoid layoffs.

But the problems may run deeper than just financial. For example, I always dread going to see any show at the Met. It is grueling to navigate my way thru the museum. And everywhere I look, all I see are hordes of exhausted visitors.

The exact opposite of what I experience at smaller art venues like The New Museum, the Whitney or the Met Breuer. Shows I experienced at these museums recently left me, and my fellow museum-goers, energized and thrilled vs. exhausted and bedraggled.

Bottom line, going to the Met is an ordeal not dissimilar to going to Macy’s at some huge, anonymous mall. I would be interested in seeing if any studies have been done on the satisfaction level of locals vs. tourists. I imagine for tourists, the bigger the better while for locals, the exact opposite is true.

My recommendation for museums looking to get out of this quagmire: study the winners and losers within the retail sector – especially malls and department stores – which are the retail equivalents of “encyclopedic collections.”

Today, people are increasingly looking for more personal and individualistic spaces and experiences. Use those insights to avoid the missteps that are rapidly taking down the retail industry.

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