If you've ever tried to go to, say, Shedd Aquarium or the Museum of Science and Industry on the Sunday of a school vacation week, you'll agree that fewer museum visitors isn't necessarily a bad thing.
By that standard, Chicago's museums did well in 2014: A total of 14.3 million people, almost 3 percent fewer than the year before, visited the 15 institutions in the Museums in the Park coalition, comprised of most of the area's major museums and nature parks, according to figures recently released.
From the institutions' perspective, of course, falling attendance is not so favorable, but the 2014 numbers are actually pretty good, they will tell you, when you factor in the bite last year's “polar vortex” cold snap took out of attendance early in the year.
“If you disregard the three months that the polar vortex hit us, our numbers were even with last year's numbers,” said Gary T. Johnson, president of Museums in the Park and of the Chicago History Museum, comparing the attendance to 2013’s.
But beyond the aggregate, there are interesting successes and stumbles in the individual numbers, including declining numbers for zoos and the aquarium, continued gains for the two big suburban nature parks and positive results at a couple of Chicago history institutions.
The biggest story, already well covered in these pages, is the year's genuine blockbuster exhibition in terms of its dramatic impact on attendance. “David Bowie Is,” the artifact- and sound-rich temporary exhibit about the rocker's career, boosted Museum of Contemporary Art annual visitorship by more than 50 percent in less than four months of residence.
But Chicago History Museum had something of a smash, too. Like “Bowie,” the “1968” exhibition, looking at that pivotal year in American culture, pushed its building to “fire code limits” for capacity and went to timed-entry ticketing in its final weeks, said Johnson. It was one of the key reasons, he said, that the Lincoln Park museum's attendance was up 7.4 percent, building nicely on a 12.6 percent gain the year before.
On the South Side, the DuSable Museum of African American History can thank sponsors (Lincoln, Black McDonald's Operators Association) and the marketing boost they provided for an 8.8 percent attendance gain, said Jacqueline Williams, the museum's director of development.
“We got a little money, and we were able to successfully market our summer program,” which included an outdoor concert series and the museum's annual arts and crafts fair, she said. “Marketing, it helps.”
Also helping in summer was a pilot program, dubbing DuSable and other Hyde Park area institutions the Museum Campus South and running free vans between them on weekends, Williams said, adding that the museums are hoping to continue or expand on that program this year.
The Morton Arboretum saw a second straight year of strong gains owing, in large measure, to its two-year-old, year-end “Illumination” holiday light display. The Lisle tree preserve, which is not part of Museums in the Park, was up 4.4 percent to 924,000 visitors, following a 9.4 percent gain the year before.
The park is hoping to reach the million-guest threshold that only seven other area institutions have achieved, said president Gerard Donnelly. “It's actually in our sights in the coming years,” he said. “We're growing in all of the seasons, especially the winter.”
Donnelly said the arboretum is maturing as a cultural institution: “I just think we're maybe catching up with some of the museums in terms of public service and programming and marketing and the kinds of events and activities that we offer now.”
Over the million-visitor mark for a second year was Chicago Botanic Garden, in the north suburbs. Marking at least its sixth straight year of audience growth, the landscaping showplace saw 5.6 percent more visitors in 2014 for a total of 1.058 million.
“That's the public's appetite for things green,” said Donnelly, referring to the two public gardens' success.
Chicago Park District's Garfield Park Conservatory, on the city's West Side, had a fall-off year, however, as some of its main rooms were closed during the final phases of repair to the glass roof damaged in a 2011 hailstorm. Its attendance fell 12.2 percent, to 144,000.
While flora had a pretty good year, fauna did not. The animal parks, the three attendance leaders in the area, all saw declines in 2014, the free Lincoln Park Zoo dipping 3.3 percent to 3.349 million, Brookfield Zoo dropping 4 percent to 2.087 million, and Shedd Aquarium shedding 9.9 percent of visitors to 1.815 million.
To be sure, parsing attendance figures can be tricky and reading too much into them sometimes unfair. One hot new feature or popular temporary exhibition can practically guarantee an institution a year or more of declining attendance afterward.
Institutions look at long-term audience trends, and they are also, of course, paying at least as close attention to revenue per guest, memberships and philanthropy as they are to raw numbers.
But still, Shedd, in particular, has to be smarting as it fell below the 2 million-visitor mark it had achieved from 2010 through 2013. This year's almost 10 percent diminishment follows a 7.1 percent drop the year before.
“We knew we were going to be off,” said executive vice president Roger Germann. “You just can't have a record breaker every year.”
2012 saw the opening of the (just departed) “Jellies” jellyfish exhibit and a record 2.169 million guests.
“That being said,” Germann said, “we were in 2014 off a little bit even from our decreased projections,” although “spending in stores and restaurants” was up, meaning revenue remained “very strong.”
Germann said the polar vortex weather had a measurable impact. He offered an example: Through Jan. 25 this year, 100,000 people had visited the Shedd, compared to 85,000 in the same time period last year.
Another, perhaps surprising impact came from the improving economy, he said: “The last few years, we saw an uptick in the percentage of folks who visited Shedd Aquarium who were locals.” Now, Germann said, families are heading back out of town, which helps Florida and California attractions, for example.
The Art Institute of Chicago also saw one of the year’s biggest declines, at 7.5 percent, but blamed it on 2013 being “just an unusually good year,” said a spokeswoman, with its two popular exhibitions, “Picasso and Chicago” and “Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity.”
“We still consider 2014 a good year,” she said, and its numbers are pretty close to those achieved in 2011 and 2012.
All of the institutions are facing a challenge elucidated by Donnelly, of the arboretum. “A busy world is our biggest competitor,” he said. “There's not a lot of competition among us for visitors. Good or bad as it may be, a lot of visitors who attend the zoo or aquarium are our visitors, too. Our big challenge is to reach out to a broader spectrum of the audience.”