Nelson nets nearly half a million visitors

Almost half a million people visited the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art since the opening of the new Bloch Building a year ago.

But the museum’s attendance figures—465,000 visitors between June 1, 2007 and June 1, 2008—falls 185,000 short of its goal of 650,000 visitors. Although the new number is a significant increase over the museum’s pre-expansion average of 350,000 visitors per year (and the previous year’s attendance of 267,000), director/CEO Marc Wilson said he really wanted it to be higher.

“Six hundred fifty thousand may have been a bit aggressive,” he said. “It was based on a sense of the past and what people responded to.”

The Nelson is not alone in falling short of opening year projections. Two other museums that recently expanded—the Seattle Art Museum and the Denver Art Museum—fell short of their goals, Wilson said. The Nelson also released a “ticketed attendance” figure of 92,000.

The number represents all visitors to the museum’s special exhibitions, including people who bought tickets and museum members (whose membership includes free admission to ticketed shows). Museum admission is free. Although the Impressionist show did well, Wilson said, many museum visitors “found the rest of what we were offering was quite sufficient.

They didn’t feel compelled to see special exhibitions. In some sense our strategy worked: Drop in. Don’t make a safari out of it. People have taken us at our word.” But he sees room for improvement in the 92,000 figure, which he described as “surprisingly low.”

“We’re really studying how to respond,” he said. “We want to change how we characterize exhibitions individually. We do a lot of exhibitions that are interesting, but we’re not cracking through that awareness battle.”

Lower than anticipated ticket revenues are not prompting any changes in programming, projects or the exhibition calendar, Wilson said

Earlier this year the museum did reduce its public hours by eight per week, but that was primarily in response to lack of traffic.

“It’s hardly cutting into the access,” Wilson said. “There was no one in the museum between four and five on Tuesday afternoon.”

Going forward, he said, “We’re staying the course and adding more money to marketing. We’re souping up the Web site. We are really devoting a lot more money to marketing special exhibitions.”