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The Economics of World Famous Art Installations

How a free Yayoi Kusama exhibit is creating long-term profit for the Hirshhorn Museum.

Known for her colorful, intensely immersive exhibitions, Yayoi Kusama is widely recognized as one of the most important artists today and her shows tend to draw gigantic crowds. Last week, an exhibition of Kusama’s famous Infinity Mirror Rooms opened at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum. The show instantly drew long lines of eager visitors, some of whom waited outside for hours for just a brief look at Kusama’s work, which will be on display at the Hirshhorn until May 14, 2017.

Kusama’s glittering, multilayered rooms are essentially the art lover’s dream Instagram photo op, with an infinite number of ideal selfie angles. One visitor to her room All The Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins lost his footing while snapping a photo and damaged one of the many pumpkin sculptures in the installation. The room had to be closed for repair, which only added to the chaos on the show’s opening weekend, as record numbers of visitors flooded the museum.

“You’d expect this show to be a big cash grab, but there’s a catch: none of the Smithsonian institutions charge admission fees.”

When hosting major shows like this, many museums charge an increased entry fee to make sure crowds don’t get too out of control. Besides, with federal funding for the arts facing serious cuts under the Trump administration, museums need all the money they can get. So you’d expect this Kusama show to be a big cash grab for the Hirshhorn. But there’s a catch: none of the Smithsonian institutions charge admission fees. The Hirshhorn had to figure out a unique plan to manage the outsized crowds that were bound to come out for the Kusama exhibit—and to generate revenue from a free-of-charge show.

Although Kusama’s mirror rooms appear convincingly endless, they’re actually quite small, and can hold only a few people at a time. The Hirshhorn knew that they had to control the influx of visitors somehow, so they decided to ask people to sign up for timed tickets in advance of their museum visit. Thousands of passes sold out within minutes of going online, the Hirshhorn said. The museum also recognized the perfect opportunity to grow their membership base, offering members direct access to the show. Memberships to the Hirshhorn start at $50. By the day before the show opened, the museum had grown their membership base 20%.

“The day before the show opened, the museum had grown their membership base 20%.”

The show has so far proven to be just as popular as predicted, with thousands of people eager to spend just 30 seconds in one of Kusama’s famous rooms. To mitigate the boredom of standing in line, the Hirshhorn has installed other Kusama works and information about the artist in view of waiting visitors. Kusama’s sculpture “Pumpkin” is also on public display in the museum’s garden, where it attracts a steady stream of selfie takers.

Some museum goers complained about the long wait times, but many said that the Infinity Mirror Room experience was well worth it. And with their memberships numbers already grown by a significant amount, the Hirshhorn has managed to leverage this free show to build their visitor base. With art institutions feeling precarious in the face of budget reductions, perhaps more museums will turn their focus to building engaged membership communities. High ticket prices can generate revenue from an individual show, but in a time when federal support for the arts is uncertain, maybe a loyal member base is more important.

All images via Hirshhorn

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