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NM museums see fewer customers but more cash

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

Fewer people are visiting state-run museums, but revenue is up.

Both results can be attributed in part to an increase in the price of admission approved and implemented more than a year ago.

And the museum system now offers New Mexico residents only one free Sunday a month. Previously, locals could visit the museums free every Sunday.

According to the Department of Cultural Affairs, in fiscal year 2017 – which ended on June 30 – 835,135 people visited the state’s eight museums. That is down from 2016’s tally of 898,381, or about 7 percent.

But all’s not bad.

“While we saw a slight overall decrease (in attendance) during the last fiscal year, it’s important to note that our revenue is still growing – and some of our sites are showcasing New Mexico to more people than we’ve seen in years,” said Michael S. Delello, Cultural Affairs deputy secretary, in an email. “For example, visits to the National Hispanic Cultural Center are up nearly 20 percent, and visits to the New Mexico Museum of Space History in Alamogordo have increased significantly as well.”

In fact, the National Hispanic Cultural Center was the most visited state museum this fiscal year, with 226,793 visitors. This is up from 189,933 in 2016.

Rebecca Avitia, NHCC executive director, credited the increase to a recent focus on events for smaller groups.

A host of events like book readings, children’s storytime, history lecture series and artist tours have been made into regular offerings over the course of the past three years, in addition to the big shows offered in the large theaters.

She said the increase is the result of nearly three years of planning.

“In fiscal year 2015, we focused on the number of large events,” Avitia said. “Once we were stabilized, we started focusing on smaller events. It created an ecosystem of events. People are starting to think of (the NHCC) as a place to go. We’ve become part of what Albuquerque has to offer. When I look at the numbers, I see a long-term strategy that has come to fruition.”

Avitia said the NHCC’s success also comes from offering programming that resonates with the community.

“Our approach is to home-grow the exhibits and the programming so that one day we can export it,” Avitia said. “Familiarity is a huge part of Hispanic culture. When we talk about business decisions, we don’t step away from the (center’s) mission. We’re going to do it through the lens of Hispanic culture.”

The New Mexico Museum of Space History in Alamogordo saw attendance grow for a fifth-straight year, with 95,833 visitors this fiscal year. (Courtesy of The N.M. Museum Of Space History)

Meanwhile, the New Mexico Museum of Space History in Alamogordo recorded its fifth year of increased visitation.

“We are up 11.2 percent over last year and 37.8 percent over our lowest attendance in fiscal year 2012,” museum Executive Director Christopher Orwoll said.

The museum’s highest attendance topped 200,000 guests in fiscal year 1990 but began dropping steadily after that until it reached a low of just over 74,000 in fiscal year 2012. In fiscal year 2017, the number of visitors was 95,833.

Over the past five years, significant work has been done at the space museum, from installing carpet to replacement of the theater’s 30-year-old projection system. In addition, new and interactive exhibits have been installed and thousands of artifacts have been added to the museum’s collection.

“There are many more improvements that we’ll be making over the next year,” said Orwoll. “And one of the major upgrades will be replacement of the theater’s aging dome. We’ll also be installing a brand new playground area near our rocket park.”

One of the biggest decreases in attendance was felt at the Museum of Natural History & Science, which saw 198,141 visitors last fiscal year. This is down from 240,031 in 2016.

The Albuquerque museum had cut back to a six-day week in October as the state struggled to balance its budget. It began once again operating a seven-day week schedule on June 23.

“We are thrilled to be able to bring the many resources of the Museum of Natural History & Science to New Mexicans and our visitors seven days a week,” said Margie Marino, the museum’s executive director.

Delello said the museums continue to work on keeping attendance up by bringing top-tier exhibits to the state, which will also build on the state’s reputation as a national cultural leader.

“For example, next February, Natural History is opening ‘Da Vinci: The Genius,’ the largest exhibition on Leonardo da Vinci ever assembled,” Delello said. “The New Mexico Museum of Art currently has an amazing exhibit from the British Museum, ‘Lines of Thought,’ which includes drawings from such masters as Michelangelo – and is getting ready to kick off its year-long Centennial celebration and grand re-opening on Nov. 25.”