Millennials and Museums: Oil and Water?

Summer means a lot of things for me. Most of these connotations are wonderful—fond memories of days spent at the beach with family, outdoor concerts with friends, rooftop barbecues and other festivities.

Now that I am out of school, summer also means it’s time to revisit the state of my student loans. So I sat down to approach this task just a few days ago, as it had been weighing on my mind for some time.

And after months of entertaining this as “a nice idea, in theory” I decided it was time to act.

Also on my mind has been the desire to visit a museum. And after months of entertaining this as “a nice idea, in theory” I decided it was time to act.

Millennials and Museums

The struggle

When I’ve googled museums in the NYC area in the past, I specifically looked for those with free admission, and my search usually did not yield much. Sometimes I would come across a museum that offered free admission once a month on some date which I could never remember. Often, it would be on the weekend, and the prospect of spending a Saturday doing something that was so structured, planned in advance, and which potentially involved lots of commuting, just did not fit with my life.

I don’t have a calendar and can never keep track of such things, and if I happened to remember, well, New York City has a dizzying array of offers for my age group, and if something else guaranteed that my friends would be interested–really any combination of live music, dancing, cheap food and drinks–it wasn’t difficult to make that decision. If these free admission days happened to fall on a weekday, they were instantly written off—I work like everyone else.

The abundance of competing activities offering value suited to my tastes presents an enormous barrier to museum attendance for millennials on its own.

The abundance of competing activities offering value suited to my tastes presents an enormous barrier to museum attendance for millennials on its own. Add to that the request that I pay $15, $20, or even $30 just to enter, and without the promise of these same offers, forget it. I’m not rich; in fact, like so many of my college-educated peers in their mid to late-twenties, I’m in debt. How I’m spending the money that I do have matters.

It took some creative maneuvering of my work schedule to actually get me through the door but finally, I made it …

The visit

Yesterday, a friend and I paid a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Before choosing, I did my research. I was looking for a place accessible by subway (I live in Brooklyn) that had a large enough collection to warrant the travel, and that—most importantly—was free. Or cheap, and by cheap I mean about $8 or less. Luckily, the Met is somewhat sympathetic to my situation and suggests a donation, but does not require any payment whatsoever.

Despite this, I was a bit taken aback by the amount of this “suggested donation.” Set at $25, I found this to be somewhat of a slap in the face. Despite the fact that it was not required, it still seemed steep. Almost as if it were designed to keep people like myself out. I felt a bizarre mix of genuine regret that I could not afford to support a great and important cultural institution, and offense at their lack of sensitivity to my financial situation.

Emotions are not rational and they do dictate consumer behavior.

Although I understand the lack of any substantial reason to take it personally, emotions are not rational, and they do dictate consumer behavior.

Here’s the thing. I’m an art lover and a born and bred museum kid. My mother began working professionally in the museum world many years before I was born. My father leads an architecture firm which specializes in museum and exhibition design, of which my parents are both principals. As a child, I was happily carted around the country to see my parents’ museum projects in the early stages and participate in test runs of individual exhibits.

In addition to this, my mother would sometimes plan mother-daughter trips for us to Pennsylvania and around the tri-state area to see great works of art in some of her favorite museums, many of which I remember fondly and which have had a profound influence on my interests as an adult.

Suffice it to say, I have a deep appreciation for museums and for art. When enough time passes without my visiting a museum, I notice. I feel a longing for what we generally term “culture.” This need had been nagging at me for many months prior to my visit yesterday.

The Met was the only museum in New York City that met my requirement of being technically free. I made plans with my friend to meet up by the entrance and jumped on the subway. Upon arriving, we were both hungry, but anticipated a high price for mediocre cafe fare and opted for a food truck outside, which seemed to promise both low prices (not exactly true) and multicultural fare. Interestingly, the museum cafe was actually not even advertised from the outside, though my suspicion in retrospect is that prices and quality would have been comparable.

It’s not enough to rely on the “intrinsic awesomeness” of your collections. If I don’t know about them, they don’t exist.

In terms of pre-visit research, I had not actually looked up what special exhibitions were on offer, I just kind of wanted the “museum experience” and to be able to browse their extensive collections. I assumed that, it being so large and having such varied offers, I’d probably find many things that would hold my interest.

It wasn’t until my friend and I were sitting on the steps that we noticed the banners advertising the special exhibitions. He expressed some interest in seeing one about fashion that had recently opened, but once inside we were overwhelmed by the array of interesting offers in the permanent collection, and by the new additions and modifications that had been made since our last visits: the sculpture garden on the first floor with the modern decorative arts balcony overlooking it and old favorites like the Temple of Dendur, Arms and Armor (one is never too old), Japanese art, and the Martin guitar exhibit.

All told, we spent about two hours browsing leisurely, without any particular agenda.

My trips to museums are so infrequent that I seldom go just for specific exhibitions. When I see them advertised in the paper or elsewhere, I tend to either write them off as something I will probably not have the time for, or, if it’s something that really interests me, I will think about it a little harder, tell myself I “really should go,” maybe make a vague plan to do so, and then ultimately miss it when a better social offer presents itself at the last minute.

My friend, who has a lot more free time and substantially more disposable income than I do, actually does make it to a number of museums and galleries around the city. He is my age, a native New Yorker, and has a keen interest in art, culture and music, pretty similar to me. But this marked disparity in available free time and income seems to make all the difference.

My experience at the Met was great. Soul-replenishing in the way that trips to museums and galleries always have been for me. Will I make another museum trip soon? I sincerely hope so. But will I part with a precious $20 or even $15 to do so? Mmm … well that all depends.

Here’s the critical question for those of you in the museum world: Will you make it worth my while?

Allow me to generalize for my age group and marketing segment: Will you offer me live music? Cocktails and snacks? The opportunity to socialize with others my age? How far are you away from me and how easy is it to get there? Will you give me a discount if I come with a friend? Or better yet, just keep admission between $10 and free and I’m sold.

Here’s the critical question for those of you in the museum world: Will you make it worth my while? And how?

Am I worth it?

My time and my money are scarce at this stage of my life. Make it worth my while and maybe I will reward you greatly when I have more of them. I’ll even bring the kids.

The bottom line is, right now I’m not in a position to give and attend in the way that your older, more established core audience and donors do. However, it may be in your best interest to treat me and my peer group like a long term investment.

I recently interviewed someone for one of our museum clients, asking about her favorite museums in the community (a major metropolitan downtown district) in an attempt to find out what they were providing for her that our client did not seem to have. She fell into the category of “active empty nester,” having plenty of free time, enough money, and a desire to be out and about exploring her city and all of its offers.

Why not? Well, largely because she has no previous connection with them.

The museums she cited as her favorites, the ones she returned to frequently over the course of many years, were those she had established a firm connection with before starting a family, and, interestingly, even before she was on firm financial ground.

She fondly recalled afternoons spent at small concerts within their grounds, walking there from work and leisurely browsing the collections, spending time there by herself and with friends—time she would later spend on her children, husband and managing a household while virtually unavailable to museums and other cultural institutions.

For a time, visits to such destinations that she’d forged a connection with in her twenties were pretty much ruled out … radio silence. However, when her kids had all gone off to school, she “resurfaced,” having regained the time and ability to choose her activities “selfishly.” Now, she is able to regularly attend the museums, galleries and other institutions of her choosing. She is not, however, visiting our client’s institution. Why not? Well, largely because she has no previous connection with them.

Are you “grue”?

In college and graduate school I studied philosophy. In philosophy, we like to talk about the connection between words, concepts and associations. Say the word “green” and I will associate it with many-toned leaves, summer and spring, being outside, environmental conservation. “Blue” brings up images of the ocean, reflective lakes by snowcapped mountains, clear summer skies with puffy white clouds. “Grue” and I have no idea what you’re talking about.

Our client’s museum is so much like “grue” to this empty nester.

Our client’s museum is so much like “grue” to this empty nester. She has no negative or positive associations with it. And though she may already have a pre-established tendency to like green and blue, grue is just not on her radar.

The opportunity for our client to cement a connection with this particular persona has passed. Going after her now will cost them a sizeable portion of their marketing budget that simply cannot be sacrificed on someone who has already made her choice about which other similar institutions she prefers.

For me this is telling: turn your attention to those who have not yet started families (which for many kinds of institutions will effectively take them out of the visitor pool) and your institution can reap the benefits later.

Millennials and museums

It’s not enough to rely on the “intrinsic awesomeness” of your collections. If I don’t know about them, they don’t exist. In fact, even if I do know about them, that’s probably not enough to get me to come. Where do my priorities lie? Well, I’m trying to save money, I like to socialize and blow off steam with my friends—we like concerts and cocktails, seeing art and going dancing.

So, what can you offer me?

Make me an offer that guarantees a good time at a reasonable price and I’ll gladly come. Then when my kids are off at college I’ll remember you, and when I have more free time and financial resources I will spend some of them on you.

When it comes to strategic marketing in the museum world, this “rubber band effect” is stronger than many may realize. The prospect of targeting millennials today may invite a reaction along the lines of “why waste the effort?” We do not seem able to offer you much. But you may reap the rewards down the road when I remember the fun I had at your mixers and concerts. One day I will bring my family back to visit your collections, and when my kids are grown up and my time is my own again, I will make a point to visit my favorite wing and bring friends and relatives.

Believe it or not, one of your worst customers today may turn out to be one of your best tomorrow.

Invest in us, and it will not go unnoticed. Believe it or not, one of your worst customers today may turn out to be one of your best tomorrow.

Does your museum need an affordable way to improve its brand today?

Because we know that not everyone needs or can afford our full process, we created a guided tutorial package for our foundational brand strategy tool: the Brand Pyramid. Watch the video for a preview.

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14 thoughts on “Millennials and Museums: Oil and Water?

  1. khutton61 says:

    I hope the museum where I work is not “grue”. I’ll remember that!

    My daughter just graduated and has moved to a new city and is working for a non-proft, AmeriCorps type job. I was thrilled that on her second day in town she went to the art museum and bought an annual membership. I think it was $61 which I’m sure seems steep. But in her first month she attended two movies on the lawn, a special Monet exhibit, a third Thursday, and is now signed up as a volunteer (she can’t be a docent) studio art assistant for their Family Days. She has already gotten her money’s worth and there’s still 11 months of member events she can attend for free. She’s getting super busy with her job so it won’t be so often, but still it’s helped her meet a lot of new people in this town where she knew no one.

    Could an annual membership at the museum that you clearly love help? You get a tax deduction and you can be absolutely spontaneous about when and how you go to the museum just as you want—they’ll send you e-blasts, etc.—I’m curious if anyone even talked to you about the benefits of membership and would you even consider it?

  2. Judith says:

    We are very pleased that our museum is a Grue – because we’re a video game museum and all our older (as in over 30) visitors know exactly what a grue is. 😉 The younger ones come for other things.

    When I was a single parent raising one child and we were very poor, we had a membership in the local zoo and later the science museum, because they were great places to visit with my son. The $50 family membership fee was basically our annual entertainment budget. But the Met gets $110 for an individual and $210 for a family – which is 2 adults plus kids, thereby discriminating against one-parent families, and families headed by women are the poorest out there. Many museums have made themselves zones of exclusivity and then complain that they can’t attract diversity and the younger people. It’s sad but not surprising. As corporate support has declined, museums have tried to throw the burden on the visitors, but I think it’s a downward spiral.

    Excellent article, thanks.

  3. Elizabeth Skolnick says:

    Hi khutton61,

    Thanks for your comment. It’s fantastic to hear that your daughter has really reaped the benefits of her membership, and I do think that the membership price in this case is reasonable. I will readily admit that there are some exceptions to the situation I described in my article, however I wonder about the longevity of her engagement with the museum.

    You observed that she had just moved to the city and that part of her reason for taking a membership was to meet new people. My suspicion is that as her social circle grows and demands on her time and attention increase in step (you also mentioned that she is getting rather busy with work), she may find herself having less and less time left over for the museum. However, if the institution offers events which combine elements of those competing social activities (going out to dinner or a concert, film screenings or cocktails, etc) and clearly links the benefits related to such events with taking out a membership, they stand a much better chance of keeping her.

    In answer to your question, I wasn’t directly asked either in person, through advertising, or through targeted onsite signage to take a membership. If the Met, or any other institution, offered a competitive membership fee and clearly outlined the benefits to me, I would certainly consider it.
    Better yet, museums: give me concrete examples of the perks I will enjoy, maybe even include some images which preview the experiences I can hope to have. If my financial resources are scarce, it’s absolutely crucial that I know exactly what I’m getting for my money.

    I’d be interested to know how your daughter’s relationship with the art museum evolves as she settles in here. And if she maintains a high level of engagement, it would certainly be worthwhile to take a look at what the museum is doing right. Keep us posted, and thanks again!


  4. Elizabeth Skolnick says:

    Hi Judith,

    Thank you for your comment. I agree that the issue of membership fees presents a huge barrier to attendance for many groups, and unfortunately does render many museums “zones of exclusivity.” Can museums provide discounts to select groups without being accused of, for example, ageism, or without marginalizing people by making them feel exposed or uncomfortable in some way?

    Traditionally, children, and sometimes students and seniors, receive attendance discounts, but what if post-grads or single parents were offered discounts? What about minorities or first-generation Americans? This may help to increase the diversity of the museum-going crowd and generally make it easier for socially stratified groups to attend, while simultaneously offending those same groups, ostracizing those it doesn’t, and inviting criticism for (inadvertent) racism, ageism or insensitivity.

    Should museums try to walk this line between well-intentioned steps toward equal access and inciting social outrage?

    I think this is a complex question, but crucial to examine as we move toward a new age of inclusion. I’d really like to hear what those in the field have to say, and invite any comments on this issue.

    Thanks again Judith!

  5. Carrie says:

    I agree with your point that a love for museums, in general or in particular, is best formed at a young age, and also that museums should make efforts to reach out to groups that are outside of their empty nester sweet spot. I have to say, though, that you really come off sounding entitled and demanding to my Gen-X ears. Are you truly going through life blithely ignoring the demands of time like some monk on a mountaintop? You do have a calendar–it’s an app in your cell phone. Not to sound like an old geezer, but when I was in my twenties, my friends and I went to great lengths to track special offers around town, whether it was happy hour specials, free/discounted admissions, whatever. We planned our life around them because we were broke. (I remember one guy who tracked happy hour buffets in a spreadsheet, so he could eat free almost every night of the week!) If you can’t be bothered to take a few seconds to note when the museums are reaching out to you now, I shudder to think what you’ll be like when you’re older, after a few decades of practicing this behavior. The future of philanthropy is indeed in jeopardy…

  6. Ben says:

    Is this real life? Am I reading The Onion? Wow. Helicopter parenting has not been kind to our once great nation. We do need to make our places and programs relevant to larger audiences. But life is about active participation, not congratulating folks on their phones for what they already know.

  7. Elizabeth Skolnick says:

    Hi Carrie and Ben,

    I understand your frustration with Millennials’ seeming lack of initiative, which I think is actually not what it appears to be. We are a different generation and, thus, the product of different factors that have shaped our consciousness in ways that may at times come off as flippant to baby boomers, for example; but the bottom line in relation to your institution is this: it’s not a fair game. It’s not about what I should or shouldn’t be doing; it’s about my actual behavior. This may be a hard pill to swallow, but if you your institution is to survive and to thrive, you’ll likely have to adapt to this. Look at the facts, and work with them.

    A New York Times article from 2007 estimates that the average person is presented with up to 5,000 advertising messages a day What makes yours stand out from the rest? How does it target my age group so that I feel like I’m being spoken to?

    If you can’t give me a good answer for this, then your communication is probably not doing its job, and if that’s the case, I likely don’t even see it. I can’t speak for all Millennials, but I have observed similar tendencies to my own among many of my peers. You say that museums are “reaching out to [us] now.” I’m not so convinced that they are doing this effectively. I’m happy to be shown otherwise, but the fact that I by and large don’t notice their efforts to make contact with my peer group is, ipso facto, some evidence that they are not doing their jobs.

    So, what’s a museum to do?

    Figure out where we spend our time (hint: social media platforms, the subway, cafes and bars, Brooklyn or its equivalent) and make it a point to be there. What aesthetics appeal to us? Insert them cleverly into your advertising. What are some of our greatest needs and desires? Offer them! This is all predicated on the assumption that you want us there. If you don’t, then do none of the above. But if you do, one thing is certain: bemoaning the behavioral tendencies of Millennials without doing anything to accommodate them will not win you more of these visitors. Them’s the facts.

    Let me add another point which has bearing on this conversation. This weekend I had the pleasure of visiting a pop-up Floating Library at the S.S. Lilac on the Hudson River and it struck me anew that not only are museums tasked with marketing to Millennials and other groups in appealing ways, they also have to compete with other “underground,” alternative cultural offers, venues and events which have an edge due to their undeniable “cool factor.” This is a very real issue, especially in cities like New York with a large and active community of young people who love art and culture. This may present an intimidating obstacle for established museums, but I don’t think it is insurmountable. If anything, museums can learn from such phenomena, and become better equipped to address the needs of this audience.

  8. Heidi Bamford says:

    I read this piece with mixed emotions – I am older, but work with the museum community and certainly understand their plight – I also have two daughters who are close in age to the author (one in college) and I will say that they love to remember – and ask to go back – to the Rochester Museum and Science Center where we often took them as children – as well as to many other museums and cultural institutions, but I am not sure how much “museum-going” they will embark on as they get older. I hate to say this, but I do think part of it IS what you do as a child – but it isn’t so much the museum as the context of the visit – good time, good memory – so you are more likely to do it again as you get older. Maybe families are spending less time with their children, doing these kinds of things. But it is also partly the connections as a student – I think I was hooked early on because our school took us on field trips everywhere – the Buffalo Zoo, Niagara Falls Aquarium, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, even to Toronto, Ontario and Washington DC for theater! Field trips are practically non-existent these days and that is sad. I don’t think cultural institutions should try to be Starbucks or food truck stops, but they should look at ways they can become “comfortable contexts” for different kinds of visitors that also fall within their abilities and resources. One way might be possibly to make “global connections” with local collections. Many people of all ages today are influenced by and connected to “causes” on social media (think the “ice bucket challenge” and the “TOMS” shoes) – so why not create exhibits and programs that connect to these things and encourage visitors to make their own connections? As Walt Disney once said, “If you can dream it, you can do it.”

  9. Jamee Vasil says:

    Hello! I know this is a year later but I, myself, am a “Millennial.” I also work in a museum as an exhibit designer. I was just given a project for a small regional museum. The educator who is leading the exhibit development was emphatic about bringing in “my generation.” And oddly enough, besides a social hour, I am at a loss as to how to design an exhibit that appeals to “millennials.” Now, the actual museum relies heavily on school groups, 3rd-8th grades. I also have to bear in mind the 50+ age range of this museums annual visitation. But – “we need millennial involvement.” Which is true, so I was very inclined to agree with the author on turning your attention on the individuals without families. I, myself, like the author, grew up visiting museums. Many of my best memories were of field trips to zoos and museums. With bus budgets non-existent, the potential museum goers being cultivated at a young age is at a lower rate than before. So my question to the author/group would be what exhibits did bring you in if any and why? And let’s leave out the social aspect and tech – we all know this is a big influence. But what’s beyond that for millennials?

    • James Heaton says:


      Thanks for the questions.

      It’s a fact of life that in in small budget marketing you are unlikely to be able to even come close to pleasing everyone. It is almost always better in fact to deeply satisfy a smaller group than to attempt satisfaction more broadly. Think of it this way: If you—knowing the content of the exhibition as well as you do—cannot think of the appropriate connection to millennial’s lives, then in all likelihood your prospective millennial targets will not be able to see a connection either. For your client museum there remains a bigger set of questions: What is our passion? What is our true talent? and finally, for whom is this combination of our passion and talent really useful? Answering the third question with honesty can be painful…and instrumental in initiating change.

      You may also be interested in this article on singles and museums: Short answer: alcohol.

  10. Shirin says:

    Hi Elizabeth,

    Thank you for your article. I do agree with you that it is important to attract the young to visit the museums as part of increasing the longevity of these beautiful cultural institutions and also increasing their cultural capital. However, museums are designed to be a space of contemplation and education and though it does not equate to boring, it would definitely be more of an intellectual activity than just one for fun. Personally, I believe that the spirit of museums would be lost if it was ‘watered down’ and taking the approach of just presenting itself as a place for fun would not work since it attracts largely a transient crowd and cannot compete with other recreational spaces on this basis (e.g., clubs, bars, malls). Perhaps changing the mindsets of millennials about museums and presenting it precisely as a space that isn’t just social and fun but also a place for personal space and time to recharge will be what truly distinguishes museums as a space and attract people there. The fact that every year there are students of the arts, culture and performing arts does mean that the youth do not just care about the glitzy and sensational but are also enthusiastic about the arts for art’s sake. Mass visitorship may not be possible all the time but as long as there is a core group that slowly expands, that would be a good approach. Quality with some quantity often beats pure quantity.

    A 19-year-old with fellow ‘millennial’ friends who love and actively visit museums.

  11. Starlyn D'Angelo says:

    I really am not sure how a museum can provide everything you demand for less than $10. How can we possibly cover basic operating costs and pay a living wage to emerging museum professionals (your generation)? I also wonder what you think your role is in your community. Are you merely a consumer or do you have any obligations related to cultural heritage in your community?

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