Exhibition Costs – what’s in *your* budget?

One of the most popular posts on this blog is one from way back in mid-2011: Exhibition Costs – Constants and Variables. Working out what a museum exhibition should cost to develop is *the* FAQ that exhibition planners hear the most. And it’s a subject that’s featured in a recent article by Sarah Bartlett and Christopher Lee [1].

Compared to visitor numbers, data on exhibition costs are hard to come by. Many exhibition projects include, at least in part, contracts with outside design companies and exhibit fabricators, who understandably play their costing cards pretty close to their chest. Most of the available data is therefore derived from informal, self-selected survey responses. Also, whereas it’s pretty easy to agree on what constitutes a ‘visitor’, deciding what counts as part of an ‘exhibition budget’ is not so straightforward. Not everyone factors the same costs into their exhibit budget equation. So even when we do have numbers, it’s hard to tell if we’re comparing apples with apples (a point I have made previously).

Bartlett and Lee cite data from their own informal survey (the full report is apparently available on splitrock studios website but at the time of writing I couldn’t find it) based on 71 responses across the US. Responses were mostly from History / Natural History / Art Museums, with relatively few science centres and children’s museums (this contrasts the survey by Mark Walhimer that I reported in my earlier post, where more hands-on style museums were represented). In the Bartlett and Lee sample, the vast majority of exhibitions came in under US$100/sq.ft., although some were over 10 times this amount. This is reflected in the average cost for science / technology museums and visitor centers being over US$500/sq.ft.

But that’s far from the whole story, because survey respondents didn’t spell out what costs were included in their $/sq.ft. figure – and what was below the line. Bartlett and Lee identify the following categories that may or may not be included in an exhibit budget, to which I’ve added a few additional comments:

  • Differing base fit-out costs of a new versus existing building (to which I’ll add the complexities of working in heritage buildings or in spaces with limited access, which increases on-site costs).
  • Basic finishes such as painting, track lighting and flooring (it’s amazing how much it can cost just to get a space up to an ‘inhabitable’ standard!)
  • Changes to building infrastructure like new walls or electric/data cabling
  • Preparatory costs, such as research, planning, design and management fees (to which I’ll add formative evaluation costs)
  • Audiovisual and Electronic interactives (I’d say it’s worth adding that this could also include software and devices that are not strictly part of the fit-out such as apps or audioguides)
  • Staff costs, both in-house and contract personnel (I’m aware that it’s often hard to quantify the amount of in-house time spent on an exhibition, particularly if staff are not required to quantify hours spent. Anecdotally I’ve heard there is often internal resistance to the idea of doing such quantifying as staff feel they’re being ‘checked up on’)
  • Maintenance costs (to which I’ll add other post-opening costs such as snagging, consumables, staffing costs and of course summative / remedial evaluation!)
  • Object-related costs such as conservation, packing and loan negotiations.

With this many variables in what people routinely count as part of the exhibition budget, it’s easy to see how you can get variations that vary by an order of magnitude or more. The most basic of exhibitions may draw upon the existing collection and not involve any changes to gallery infrastructure such as lighting, painting or display cases, and staff costs may be absorbed into day-to-day operating budgets rather than costed out. At the other extreme are highly media-rich and interactive exhibitions that involve considerable research and hiring in of a multitude of outside experts. Bartlett and Lee also identify geography as a factor in costs, at least across different parts of the US.

1. Bartlett, S., and Lee, C. (2012). Measuring the Rule of Thumb: How Much to Exhibitions Cost? Exhibitionist, Vol 31(2), pp 34-38.

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