Art museums and their impact on urban space: a new focus and why it matters.


Welcome to the first in a series of posts about my research on art museums, anchor institutions, and neighborhood change. As an urban scholar, I investigate how organizations and physical spaces influence neighborhood socioeconomics, community development, and economic development. One organization and space that receives insufficient attention from the urban studies community is the city art museum. In this post:

  • I will argue why art museums are important objects of inquiry for those who study cities and care about the production of urban space
  • I will present my argument for why they are understudied in the field of urban studies and city planning
  • And finally, I will introduce how they engage debates that are of particular import today.

Why are art museums important to the study and planning of urban space?

The activities of art museums take place in highly contested urban areas. Many art museums, whether they intended to or not, are now located in or near city centers, which are highly contested spaces (a future blog post will discuss the location of these institutions in more detail). These are places where ethnic groups, lower income groups, highly skilled and educated ‘creative’ people, the wealthy, the homeless and real estate developers all vie for space to pursue their interests. Art museums have tendencies to grow physically by constructing new additions and annexing adjacent buildings, which adds to the complicated and often politically motivated reorganization of urban space. Some art museums have even developed real estate nearby for investment purposes and to secure land for future growth.

Denver Art Museum_CCwithattrib_Wiki
In 2006, the Denver Art Museum added luxury condos known as the Museum Residences to their complex. Photo credit: User: (WT-shared) Jtesla16 at wts wikivoyage


Art museums also tend to have connections to a city’s wealthiest and most influential citizens. The collecting and exhibiting of art alone are expensive endeavors and require formidable financial assets. To secure and maintain sufficient financial capital, private, nonprofit art museums (which consititute the vast majority of museums in the United States) are in a constant state of fund raising. Thus, institutions like art museums rely heavily on relationships with wealthy and influential citizens for their fundraising as well as board membership. More often than not, these elite constituents have outsized influence over city politics, economic matters, and real estate development.

Yet art museums are also organizations with a public service mission and host a variety of spaces and programming for public benefit. Museum space can give members of the public a place for education, recreation, and respite from bad weather. Programming can bring together people and enrich their lives. Conceptually, however, the revenue-generating goals of the museum can complicate its public service mission. For example, very few private, nonprofit art museums offer universal free access, because ticket sales count for an increasingly large portion of revenues used to support museum operations. The kinds of exhibitions a museum a programs, further, are often influenced by how likely they are to bring in visitors and revenue.

Saint Louis Art Museum_Attrib_BettinaWoolbright
The Saint Louis Art Museum is one of a small number of institutions that offers free general tuition. Photo Credit: The St Louis Art Museum on Art Hill in Forest Park, by Bettina Woolbright

Lastly, art museums are an example of “sticky capital,” or an institutional manifestation of a city’s financial and human resources that “sticks around ” even when those resources diminish. One only needs to look at the number of city art museums around the country (if not the world) that have lasted for decades, if not hundreds of years. Thus, the impact that art museums have on urban space (whether it is bad or good) may affect many generations of people.

Haven’t art museums been studied before by urban social scientists?

While urban studies and urban planning scholarship does include research on the role of art museums in economic development, very little focuses on how they might influence socioeconomic change and community development. Perhaps the most famous example of an art museum that attracted quite a bit of urban research is the Guggenheim Bilbao. Research on the Bilbao predominately focuses on how the creation of the global landmark art museum caused an increase in tourism, which led to a growth in the region’s hospitality services industry. The connection between the art museum and increased economic activity in Bilbao launched the “Bilbao Effect” — the strategy of building a global art museum to catalyze local or regional economic activity.

Flickr photo by Julen Iturbe-Ormaetxe, Guggenheim Bilbao CC BY-SA 2.0

Since the Bilbao, many urban scholars have focused their attention specifically on the economic effects of art museums (for example: Grodach, 2010; Sheppard, Oehler, Benjamin, & Kessler, 2006, all listed below), but little of it on the socioeconomic effects. Research that does investigate the role of arts institutions in community development (though not specifically on socioeconomic neighborhood effects) focuses on smaller scale, grass roots organizations (Grodach, 2011). University of Pennsylvania researchers Susan Seifert and Mark Stern have made important contributions to understanding how arts institutions impact socioeconomic change in neighborhoods, but have done so concentrating on cultural clusters – agglomerations of arts and cultural producers, organizations, and consumers – and not on large scale institutions themselves.

So why does this matter to us today?

Understanding how art museums affect the socioeconomics and social development of urban space matters because it engages two important trends that are occurring in cities now with increasing frequency.

First, cities increasingly depend on private actors and institutions (both for-profit and nonprofit) to provide urban planning, community services, and public space. This occurs in a neoliberal political climate (especially in the United States) that distrusts the role of government actors and institutions in providing these urban services. Thus, private, non-profit art museums, which ostensibly have the potential to impact urban space, become an important and timely object of research. (I will explore this idea further in a future post about art museums and what are defined as “anchor institutions”).

Second, city centers are increasingly transforming into spaces that cater to more privileged social classes, a process often identified as gentrification. This transformation often includes the redevelopment of poorer downtown neighborhoods into mixed-use districts for young creative types, college students, and retiring baby boomers (Deutsche & Ryan, 1984; Ley, 2003; Birch, 2002). While such changes can mean new and exciting amenities, increased economic activity, and more social diversity in these downtown districts; they also can mean the displacement of established and vulnerable groups, if not cultural exclusion. The extent to which art museums, their location in these poorer downtown neighborhoods and their connection to privileged groups, facilitate this process is an important piece to the gentrification puzzle.

I look forward to expanding on these arguments in subsequent posts about the impact of art museums on urban space. Please feel free to contact me about any additional resources or links. Below are some academic resources on art museum studies, economic development, community development, and gentrification.


Abt, J. (2006). The Origins of the Public Museum. In S. J. Macdonald (Ed.), A Companion to Museum Studies. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Birch, E. L. (2002). Having a Longer View on Downtown Living. Journal of the American Planning Association, 68(1), 5-21.

Deutsche, R., & Ryan, C. G. (1984). The Fine Art of Gentrification. October, 31, 91–111.

Grodach, C. (2010). Beyond Bilbao: Rethinking Flagship Cultural Development and Planning in Three California Cities. Journal of Planning Education and Research, 29(3), 353–366.

Grodach, C. (2011). Art Spaces in Community and Economic Development: Connections to Neighborhoods, Artists, and the Cultural Economy. Journal of Planning Education and Research, 31(1), 74–85.

Ley, D. (2003). Artists, Aestheticisation and the Field of Gentrification. Urban Studies, 40(12), 2527–2544.

Sheppard, S. C., Oehler, K., Benjamin, B., & Kessler, A. (2006). Culture and Revitalization: The Economic Effects of MASS MoCA on its Community.


Header Image: Flickr photo by Julen Iturbe-Ormaetxe, Guggenheim Bilbao CC BY-SA 2.0



4 thoughts on “Art museums and their impact on urban space: a new focus and why it matters.

  1. I understand the conundrum, or “Catch 22”, as you will. Most museums, although they may bring economic benefits to a community, must rely on private donations and ticket sales to stay in existence, which inevitably brings gentrification. This, in turn, often results in a sense of of disenfranchisement by those who have lived there forever. The museum itself may also seem off-limits to those who may not have the means to pay for a ticket, or who feel intimidated by not knowing anything about art, or who are simply self-conscious about their wardrobe. Good luck in trying to reconcile the these two different purposes of museums in urban planning.


    1. Abegail — you are right that more art museum revenue comes from philanthropic donations than ticketing, and thank you for the link to the report.

      When I say “increasingly large” to describe ticketing revenues at art museums, I did not mean to imply they have become the largest source of art museum revenue. Rather, they have become increasingly important sources of revenue, particularly after coming out of the last recession, when art museums could not count on nearly as much philanthropic revenues as they had in the past.

      Further, the methodology of the report seems to use aggregated data (total expenditures and total revenues per source, added up for every museum) rather than averaging percentages of revenue by institution. If this is indeed true, this would have the effect of weighting the overall revenue source percentages to reflect those of the largest institutions (think the Metropolitan Museum of Arts, MOMAs, Art Institute of Chicago, etc.), whose revenues overwhelming come from endowment investments and private philanthropy, and not from ticket sales (these are the museums that offer the most free days). The LA Times article even acknowledges the effect of weighting the data:

      “Those dollar averages are skewed drastically upward by a relatively small group of very large institutions with budgets in the tens or hundreds of millions. It’s comparable to what the 1% do to statistics on Americans’ average earnings and household wealth.”

      I think a more valid way of describing the percentage of revenue sources (and raw revenue in general) for the “average” museum would be to use median values of the raw data, rather than averages, to avoid this weighting effect.

      However, I still think you are right — ticket sales are not a majority of the average art museum revenue. But the evidence I have collected suggest that they are a greater proportion than this report suggests, and a vital source of income for art museums.


      1. UPDATE: I reached out to AAMD who authored the report and confirmed my suspicion: the report did aggregate the data without accounting for the built-in weighting effect of the larger institutions, thus biasing the results to overwhelmingly reflect those larger institutions. I am considering a possible response to this in a future blog post…


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