Organize a major exhibition with the intention to sell to other institutions. Publish a large catalog with the Taschen or an other publishing house.
With big name artists a profitable show is achievable. Visitors readily pay a surcharge, and it is easier to find sponsors.
For museums that own big names like Bacon, Warhol or Picasso the lending fees can really make a lot of money.
Photo exhibitions, with the ability to show copies and exhibit from the own collection, are much easier to export. It can be lucrative to make a show that will go on tour. It can also lead to widening a reputation, but costs can only be recovered if the exhibition is shown in two more locations.
Organizing shows often happens in cooperation with three to four other institutions. Collaborating from the beginning. Without partners to share the costs, it’s hardly possible to organize large exhibitions. An institution without collection can never offer something in return, if they ask another museum for help.
Shopping for traveling exhibitions can be expensive. Museums get offered exhibitions on weekly basis. On average they take on a ready-made exhibition once a year.
The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York organized a the Jeff Koons retrospective in 2014. It was a box-office success. They sold it to the Centre Pompidou. It was the most attended exhibition of a living artist in the Paris museum’s history (more than 650,000). This however did not result in a big financial profits. Only through the sale of publications tied to the exhibition, The museum made money.
The French museum made €2.6 million from ticket sales and €320,000 in earnings from the sale of publications. But the Centre Pompidou had to pay a €1.25m lending fee to the Whitney. The museum only broke even with the show. That sad news came from a lawsuit in Paris. The cost of bringing a mega exhibitions like this to Europe is gigantic. There are many associated costs too, such as transportation and insurance. These figures show the hard reality of traveling exhibitions. The Whitney did probably not get rich from it either.
In 2013 the Victoria and Albert Museums must have earned hundreds of thousands of pounds.
The London museum had it’s most visited show in it’s history. More than 1.3 million people have visited the show. That was the David Bowie exhibition. Ninety percent of the objects in the show on loan from the David Bowie Archive in New York. Bowie offered curators full access and they did not pay a fee to borrow the works. Bowie merchandise alone brought in £3.6m in retail sales.
The show traveled to Barcelona, São Paulo, Berlin, Groningen, Chicago, Paris, Melbourne and Tokyo. The V&A paid for shipping and other expenses. The catalogue (in seven foreign languages) has sold more than 160,000 copies.
Although the V&A had high display costs, the borrowing fees will have helped to offset that.
Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors will travel to four major museums in the United States and Canada. When the exhibit opened at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington. The Hirshhorn had to figure out a plan to manage the crowds and to generate revenue from a free show. They decided to ask people to sign up for timed tickets in advance of their museum visit. The first 9,000 tickets were reserved in only six minutes. The museum’s website crashed from demand. They also offered their members direct access to the show. Before the show opened, the museum had grown their membership with twenty percent. Hirshhorn membership starts at $50. It also sold nearly 400 “Contributor’s Circle” memberships for $250 apiece. Higher-level memberships brought in about $12,000. That means an additional $237,000 in revenues came into the Hirshhorn in two months.
The museum will also earn money from the sale of the catalogue that it published with Delmonico Books. The lending fees for the show will no doubt be significant.
The show can be seen in the Seattle Art Museum (June 30–Sept. 10, 2017), The Broad in Los Angeles (October 2017–January 2018), the Art Gallery of Ontario (March–May 2018) and the Cleveland Museum of Art (July–October 2018).