Museum memberships: Due for a rethink?

The Vancouver Art Gallery, which enjoys a prominent location in the city’s downtown core, is looking to rebuild and relocate. It seems the VAG is running out of space — and the works of such high-profile British Columbia artists as Brian Jungen, Jeff Wall and Stan Douglas aren’t being displayed publicly because of this square footage crunch.

If they’re serious, and it appears they are, we can expect a frantic fundraising push anytime now. The gallery’s director Kathleen Bartels — formerly of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles — will have to make a compelling case for private and public investments that could reach staggering sums of money — given today’s real estate climate and the costs for major building construction.

Meanwhile, one source of revenues for art galleries in general, and museums across the board, is annual memberships. I used to have membership in a major art gallery (not the VAG), and in retrospect never really felt like it was worth the time or money. And that’s probably because I didn’t feel very engaged with the institution. Apparently I wasn’t alone.

Museum 2.0 has published a quite thoughtful post on how to rethink museum memberships — arguing that many of today’s arts memberships are not much different from gym memberships.

Gym memberships, like museum memberships, are often bought based on future intentions rather than current activities. If you are not someone who works out, you assume that buying a gym membership will motivate you to attend. But the gym experience, like the museum experience, doesn’t welcome you into a social, supportive environment that rewards your membership. It just offers services and equipment, to be used or ignored. And the reality is that 9 out of 10 gym memberships are abandoned.

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