Plains, Rourke art museums cash in on free admission

Patrons at the Plains Art Museum check out a show. Photo courtesy of the Plains Art Museum / Special to The Forum

FARGO-MOORHEAD —  When the Plains Art Museum and the Rourke Art Gallery + Museum announced they would do away with admission on July 1, 2017, it raised eyebrows from people who wondered why the nonprofits would drop an income source.

What the move really raised, however, was attendance and revenue.

Both organizations reported a rise in foot traffic and donations since shelving a cover charge.

The Plains Art Museum. Forum file photo


The Plains Art Museum, 704 First Ave. N., has seen a 37 percent increase in exhibition attendance — which doesn’t include guests for facility rentals like weddings or corporate events — bringing in about 50,000 people in 2018.

Similarly, the Rourke, 521 Main Ave. in Moorhead, saw a 30 percent rise in attendance, up to about 7,000 in the same year. The Plains is open 35 hours over a five-day span weekly, while the Rourke is open for 12 hours a week, 1 to 5 p.m. Fridays through Sundays.

“It’s been good for us, but it’s never really been just about us,” says Andy Maus, director and CEO of the Fargo-based Plains, explaining that making the museums free was a way of raising the bar for cultural amenities in the area and making more people feel welcome.

“North Dakota needs Fargo to be its artistic and cultural destination,” he says. “We are poised to be a strong arts community. This is just one of our ways to engage more people in the process.”

Maus says waiving a door fee made the Plains more accessible for people who may have not previously visited — and the bump in attendance shows they are attracting those new patrons.

“That’s a lot more people who had this real or perceived barrier to participating in the arts,” Maus says.

Some of those didn’t just become visitors, but also supporters as Maus says the Plains has benefited from new donors and more donations overall, even as membership has slipped.

When they announced the plan to drop admission charges, the Plains planned to offset the loss of income by attracting 100 new supporters, and the Rourke similarly set a goal of 50. Each of the organizations easily met their goal.


Maus says the Plains has received “specific and generous support because we’re free.”

The Rourke Art Gallery + Museum.

Across the river in Moorhead, Jonathan Rutter, executive director and curator at the Rourke, says the organization has seen a marked increase in first-time visitors as well as a significant increase in patrons between the ages of 18 and 35. The institution also sees membership continuing to climb.

“In spite of the fact people get in for free, one might think there would be no reason to get a membership. We continue to see member growth beyond that campaign,” Rutter says.

He adds that the Rourke now averages more in free-will donations per month than it garnered from admission.

Rutter said admission only accounted for about 1 percent of the The Rourke’s $185,000 annual budget.

That percentage was the same at the Plains, where the annual budget is $2 million.


Maus says the Plains will next work on “increasing the quality of the museum.”

“We have to step up our game, and this is part of stepping up,” he says.

By continuing to offer interesting experiences, Maus says the 50,000 who visited in 2018 could grow to 70,000 in five years and even more in a decade.

For 20 years John Lamb has covered art, entertainment and lifestyle stories in the area for The Forum.
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