Subscription Service for Museums

in #nonprofit2 years ago

So I was going to write a post about jet packs and how society might be different if the US Army had pursued them further in the 1960s instead of abandoning the project and pivoting to helicopters, and maybe I still will in a future post. However, I was recently struck by a different idea perhaps as crazy as jetpacks.

What if there was a subscription service like Netflix or Spotify, but for museums?

What if visitors could pay a subscription fee every month/year to visit a plethora of museums for free? The model works for music and TV--people pay a fee to access much more music or TV than they could afford if they had to buy or rent music, TV, and movies individually. By pooling their funds, subscription services can pay the required licensing fees for this content, and have much more negotiating power than individual consumers on their own. Imagine this working for museums--instead of paying admission fees everywhere, subscribers could pay the subscription, present their membership card/phone code/whatever to the admission desk and get in the museum for free. The subscription service would then pay each museum a monthly fee to give its subscribers access. This means the museum has guaranteed monthly income which doesn't fluctuate based on visitation. Ideally, all museums would be free to visitors, but at least this system would make it cheaper for visitors, assuming they actually visit a lot of museums. It might even increase visitation, which is good for many reasons, including securing funding from foundations, grants, and other funders.

A museum membership card. Museum memberships are in decline. Should it be a museum subscription card instead? Photo credit:

I realize of course that this is a far fetched idea, and has many problems. The market for music and TV is very different from the market for museums, and just because the subscription service works for one doesn't mean it will work for the other. Car subscription services, like ZipCar, for example, are not wildly popular and widely successful. Also, there would be many many hurdles to overcome in creating a museum subscription service. How do you convince museums to participate? How do you keep the subscription cost low enough to be affordable but high enough to pay museums a fair price? How do you convince enough people to purchase the subscription to have sufficient funds to pay museums a fair price? I don't have the answers, and there are many other problems I haven't discussed.

Just some crazy ideas for us to think about.

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There are a few services like this that already exist!

  • Members to the American Alliance of Museums get free entry to hundreds of museums.
  • Bank of America cardholders get free entry to a large amount of museums (not sure how many participants) the first full weekend of each month.
  • Many regional museum council members get free admission to local museums.
  • (There's probably more that I just don't know about)

The one missing piece here are these service-providers compensating individual museums for the free admission. I think that museums are instead compensated with the increased admission numbers, which museums can then bring to potential funders to prove why they should donate to the museum, plus the benefits of word-of-mouth as a means for attracting new visitors.

It's hard for me to imagine how an organization like AAM would find the funds to compensate the hundreds of participating museums, or at least give a meaningful level of compensation. Bank of America certainly does... I'm not sure if they give any financial support to their participating museums, though.

Do you think it would be easier to convince one of these service providers to change their model to start compensating participating museums, or to create an entirely new subscription service that is able to compensate participating museums? And where do you envision those funds coming from?

Instead of free admission, maybe there could just be more advanced free historical/museum content sent to your phone or to your house via a low monthly fee or a pay-what-you-want kind of thing.

People pay artists on a service called Patreon in order to access new songs, funny photos, and exclusive videos. Some bands even have a monthly gift they send to their Patreon followers (a post card, a small toy, etc). It's all very personal and makes people feel like they're a part of the community of fans. They're getting an insider look at the musician's life, and I think this could totally work to pull people into behind the scenes museum processes.

I don't know what the song or poem equivalent would be in the museum world, but this kind of personal, and insider content could get people to pay something extra to feel more involved with the cultural institutions in their neighborhoods.

The AAM model is the only one I can see as a viable solution--otherwise, the admission is tied to having a certain product (a Bank of America card or AAA road services) that many people won't need or can't get. The other problem is, they're too restrictive--one weekend a month is not much, and AAA generally only offers small discounts, not free admission. Of course, that doesn't mean Bank of America couldn't run a subscription service only for museum admissions and not tied to their products or other restrictions, but I don't expect they'd be interested, it doesn't really fit well with their business model.

As far as the AAM or local museum councils go, I don't think the average museum visitor would want to join them. And I don't know that they would want or could handle a large influx of members who are only interested in the free museum visits and who aren't museum workers or professionals. However, I could see the AAM helping create a separate subscription service.
However, I think it would be easier just to create a new service, and take whatever help these organizations are willing to provide to getting it running. The funds would primarily come from subscription fees, but I have no idea if that would be enough to be viable.

The other local equivalent is the PhillyPass, a limited-time pass that gets tourists into many museums, but that doesn't engender the sustained engagement I think we're hoping for here. @chelseareed's invocation of Patreon is probably a better model, and could be seen as a democratized version of the fundraising work that museums already do, receiving small donations from many investors/patrons rather than just a few rich folks.

Interesting idea. As a subscription app (like Spotify) the membership or subscription model would be shifted in several ways resulting in a presumably very large aggregated audience. I assume there would be significant value to the data these "members" would agree to provide?

So, would the numbers work to benefit a single museum enough to get them to sign on? Would it be worthwhile for a cultural consumer to download the app and maintain it for, say $4.99 a month?

I wish I knew the answers to these questions too, but it would take more market research than I am able to do. Perhaps I should hire TDC?

The value in musicians putting their music on Spotify is purely exposure. So many people use it around the world that it would be silly to pass up that opportunity.

However, it pays next to nothing, so in order to use the Streaming Service model, you'd need to find a more equitable way of splitting the proceeds to cultural actors involved. Museums need exposure, but since the app would be localized, I don't imagine the publicity benefits being too substantial.

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