Exhibit A: Local museums experience ups and downs attracting crowds

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Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette
The Hall of Sculptures on the second floor of the Carnegie Museum of Art.
By Tim McNulty
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Visitors are flocking to the expanded, award-winning Children's Museum of Pittsburgh, which just had its best attendance year in its 23-year history. Elsewhere in the city, museum attendance is flat or dropping slightly.

Visits to the four Carnegie Museums dropped 8 percent from 2004 to 2005 -- from 1,391,800 to 1,286,000 -- and visits were also down a bit at smaller institutions, such as the Frick Art & Historical Center in Point Breeze, which saw a 5 percent drop through the first quarter of this year.

Local museum officials are not raising alarms, saying the numbers change year to year depending on the shows they book. When widely appealing shows are programmed -- such as some of the glass exhibitions set for several city institutions next year -- visits will go back up.

With attendance figures, "sometimes they're up a little, sometimes they're down. It's not demographic-driven, it's program-driven," Frick executive director William Bodine said.

Alyssa Cwanger, Post-Gazette
Julia Putignano of Pleasant Hills at the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh.
Click photo for larger image.

Online graphic

Pittsburgh museums: Attendance numbers

Also, Pittsburgh rarely puts on huge art shows -- such as the "Cezanne in Provence" exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., this year -- that draw thousands of people a day. The city's biggest semi-regular show is the Carnegie International, which experienced a 9 percent attendance dip in 2004-05.

Pittsburgh is "like a walled petri dish in that we don't have people swarming in from all over," said Tom Sokolowski, director of the Andy Warhol Museum.

"If you have something in a big city -- Philadelphia, New York, Chicago -- they have a huge population, lots of tourism, and if it's marketed well, you have people from all over flying in to see it. What do we have here? We have two hours from Cleveland and five hours from Charleston."

From 2004 to 2005, visits dropped 8 percent at the Carnegie's two Oakland museums (Art and Natural History), from 523,100 to 483,100; dropped 8 percent at the Science Center, from 790,800 to 729,900; and dropped 6 percent at the Warhol, from 77,900 to 73,200.

Through May of this year, the Warhol's attendance was up 14 percent over the same period in 2005. Visits were down 2 percent at the two Oakland facilities and down 8 percent at the Science Center.

Natural History museum numbers were affected by the close of its dinosaur hall in March 2005, said David Hillenbrand, president of the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, and the Science Center was hurt by the surge of visitors to the expanded Children's Museum a few blocks away on the North Side. (The dinosaur hall, renamed "Dinosaurs in Their World," is set to reopen late next year.)

The overall picture for the city's museums is not bad, Hillenbrand said, and mirrors the experience of museums nationwide. Nationwide attendance has been mostly flat since 2000, according to the American Association of Museums, averaging about 68,000 visitors each year at museums of all types and sizes.

Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette
Carnegie Museum of Natural History's taxidermy exhibition, on display through Oct. 1.
Click photo for larger image.

"When you consolidate the numbers together, we're in a very stable position in a year where we're watching the numbers carefully," Hillenbrand said.

Admission prices have held steady for the past two years at the Carnegie's Oakland museums and the Warhol. The last increase was in 2004, when admission went from $8 to $10 and new membership levels also were introduced.

Just about the only thing bad going on for Children's Museum director Jane Werner these days is being told she's cannibalizing visitors from the Science Center, her North Side neighbor.

"I hope we're not cannibalizing anybody. I hope that's not true," she said. "I think there are enough people for everybody -- taking your family to multiple venues is important."

Things are great at the Children's Museum, which experienced a 25 percent attendance burst in the fiscal year ending June 30, largely due to its expanded and award-winning space, which now includes the former Buhl Planetarium. Visits jumped from 174,292 to 218,605.

National attention -- for example, an American Institute of Architects Honor award this year and a recent article in The Economist magazine -- is helping to lure visitors from out of town as well as architecture enthusiasts. The museum also did an "8-plus" campaign, to draw older children to the facility.

It is among the top 20 children's museums in the nation, according to the Association of Children's Museums in Washington, D.C.

Attendance is also up at the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center, growing from 100,000 to 130,000 annually since the opening of its Smithsonian wing in 2004.

This year's Pittsburgh Roars campaign -- funded largely by the Richard King Mellon Foundation -- has helped market Children's, the History Center and other city cultural facilities, though ads in USA Today and promotional spots on WTAE-TV.

Some of the ads targeted Cleveland, as its Museum of Art was closed for renovations this year, with a 50 percent museum discount for Ohio residents. Some 1,430 Ohio residents took advantage of the offer over four weeks in June and July, according to a Pittsburgh Roars progress report released last week.

Tim McNulty can be reached at tmcnulty@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581.


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