Record-Breaking 5.2 Million Visitors To Metropolitan Museum of Art

July 26, 2011       Samuel Fanburg      

As a needed salvation from the scorching concrete jungle of New York City, the air-conditioned Metropolitan Museum of Art has recently been heating up with interest.

A record 5,240,000 visitors this past year exceeds any attendance in the Met’s 130-year history. It is the first time visitation has exceeded 5 million people since 2001.

“We began the season with very strong attendance at the end of our Picasso exhibit,” said spokesman Harold Holzer. “And this seems to have carried on to the opening of our Alexander McQueen exhibit.”

The late fashion designer’s dress collection running until August 7th has been visited by more than 500,000 people, with last year’s Pablo Picasso exhibit drawing 703,000.  

Indicated by a recent study from the American Association of Museums, the attendance signifies the nation’s reliance on museums during tough economics times, according to Met director Thomas P. Campbell. “…This landmark figure, underscores the vibrancy of the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibitions and collections for its audiences from around the world,” said Campbell via a statement. “It also sends a signal about the enduring importance of culture and cultural institutions to the public, especially during this period of recession.”

During 2010, almost three-quarters (70 percent) of museums did not see a decrease in attendance, while 32 percent of museums saw a significant increase in attendance.

Conducted during February of this year, surveys were sent to nearly 2,300 institutional members of the American Association of Museums, reporting that the increase of visitations was due to many people staying closer to home and taking advantage of “parks, historical sites and museums nearby.” In addition, “common reasons offered for the boost in attendance include new ‘blockbuster’ exhibits and better marketing.”

Like most other nonprofits, a majority (52 percent) of museums encountered a decrease in government funding, whereas only 36 percent saw their investment income decrease.

Because of this reduction in funding, many museums adopted a variety of budget-saving measures to meet these economic challenges.

Some 35 percent of museums used hiring freezes, 34 percent were seen to rely more heavily on volunteers, a little more than a quarter (30 percent) deferred building maintenance while 29 percent relied on their own collections of exhibitions, a technique championed by the Met.

Other than the collections from Picasso and McQueen, the four other biggest attractions were artwork already in the Met’s collection. “It is especially heartening that three of the four most highly attended exhibitions for the year were drawn entirely or almost entirely from Metropolitan Museum’s permanent collection,” wrote Campbell. “This is a tribute to the encyclopedic sweep and astounding depth of the collection here, and it underscores the unique ability of this institution to present a stellar exhibition program in the context of its collections of the finest examples of the visual history of the world.”

With declines in funding, even museums like the Met could preserve the services they offer to schools and their teachers. According to the survey, more than half of American museums expanded their services to K-12 students and teachers.

For the Met specifically, 195,000 visitors were students on school trips with New York City area school groups increasing by 50 percent.

A huge part of the rebuilding process following the recession was engaging online, said Holzer. “Social media has given us a tremendous opportunity,” he said. “We now are able to present programs and different exhibits to people whenever we want. We can now also have meaningful relationships with people in the online realm.”

Due to the Met’s expansion to the online world, membership now clocks in at 139,800 people, a record high, increasing 663 members from the previous year. Visitation to the museum’s web site increased 14 percent to nearly 40 million hits this past year. The Met’s Twitter account, “@metmuseum,” has also grown to over 300,000 followers, however dwarfed by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMa), with a following of over 600,000 people at @museummodernart. Using a Facebook page as well, the Met has tried to spread their influence to the online realm in addition to the physical one.

As evidenced by almost three-fourths of the museum community, leadership believes the situation will get even better. Some 40 percent of museums indicated that things would remain steady, with 28 percent believing attendance will continue to increase.

For the Met, Holzer contended that as tourism gets even more popular in New York, the Met will see more increased numbers.  “Over 45 million tourists came to New York this past year,” said Holzer. “It is only natural that these visitors will want to absorb some artistic experience. Not only do we offer art collections but have had music and lecture series running for over 50 years. I can only see the future as promising.”