Multi-Billion Dollar Museum Industry Is a Tourism Powerhouse

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I locked eyes with the general. The situation looked grim, though I admired his bravery as he faced the battle raging around him. His expression hinted he, too, knew the outcome. I did. The painting depicted time frozen on canvas, speaking volumes without words.

According to UNESCO, there are roughly 104,000 museums in the world. Each holds treasures waiting to be discovered by another set of eyes, someone new to interpret the unspoken stories.

And we humans do love a good story. 

“Most people visit museums as a social outing,” says Mark White, Ph.D., Executive Director of the New Mexico Museum of Art. “Art inspires emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually, and the value of that experience lies not just in the personal interaction with an object but also in sharing that with a partner, family, or friend. There is profound emotional weight in the shared experience.”

Museums Boost Urban Economies Through Tourism

With its impressive $25.2 billion valuation in 2023, the museum tourism industry is a significant attraction for visitors worldwide. These institutions are more than centers for cultural and historical displays; they are key contributors to urban economies through tourism. 

Visitors who come to cities for their renowned museums spend money on accommodations, dining, and shopping, boosting the local economy. Museums enhance the attractiveness of cities as travel destinations and are essential in generating tourism revenue.

“Most of my travel revolves around museums,” says Melanie Allen, Happiness Expert with Partners in Fire. “I visited Paris specifically to see the Louvre, Florence for the Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze to see Michelangelo’s David, and New York for the MET. I value museums when I travel because I love the story of humanity they showcase — from our earliest innovations through our greatest triumphs in the arts and technology.”

Big Cities Aren’t the Only Ones With Remarkable Museums

New York, Paris, London, and other iconic cities may have some of the most famous museums, but countless others are scattered throughout America, dotting the landscape with history and culture.

Museums go beyond showcasing fine paintings. You’ll find Jimi Hendrix’s guitar in Seattle, Hank Aaron’s 700th home run baseball bat in Kentucky, Albert Einstein’s brain in Philadelphia, and the Hope Diamond in Washington, D.C. Museums protect history, inspire imagination, and educate generations. 

While visitors discover cultural treasures, many cities have unearthed a significant source of tourism revenue. In some areas, museum tourism brings in more revenue than any other sector, making the art of preserving the past a lucrative investment for the future.

Santa Fe, New Mexico

With more than a dozen museums, New Mexico’s capital is a haven for art lovers. Visitors to the thriving art scene enjoy living history, cultural displays and collections, wartime memorabilia, contemporary art, and more.

“We’re really drawn to the amazing art scene here in Santa Fe,” says Robert Nask, a visitor from California. “My wife and I bought a beautiful piece of art from a gallery here last year, and we’re back to look for another. Santa Fe is special to us because we both love art so much.”

The recently released Arts and Economic Prosperity 6 (AEP6) report confirms that museum tourism is a significant source of income for Santa Fe. According to the report, the nonprofit arts and culture sector generated $353.8 million in total economic activity in 2022. 

This spending — $99.6 million by nonprofit arts and culture organizations and an additional $254.2 million in event-related spending by their audiences — supports 3,828 jobs, generates $162.2 million in household income for residents, and delivers $47.0 million in tax revenues to local, state, and federal governments.

Among the notable museums in Santa Fe are:

  • New Mexico History Museum
  • Georgia O’Keeffe Museum
  • Bataan Memorial Military Museum
  • The IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts
  • New Mexico Museum Of Art
  • Museum Of International Folk Art
  • Palace Of The Governors

While not all cities boast the same numbers, museum tourism is a powerful catalyst for cultural and economic development in many communities nationwide.

Grand Rapids, Michigan

Underscoring the value mid-sized cities contribute to the museum industry, Grand Rapids has a thriving scene of its own. The town packs a serious punch regarding cultural offerings, from a presidential museum to a world-renowned sculpture garden. 

Some of Grand Rapids museums include:

  • Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park 
  • Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum 
  • Grand Rapids African American Museum & Archives 
  • Grand Rapids Art Museum 
  • Grand Rapids Children’s Museum 
  • Grand Rapids Public Museum 

Seattle, Washington

The Emerald City is a strong contender for museum enthusiasts. In February, tourists staying at some Seattle downtown hotels enjoy a 50% discount on admission to numerous city museums as part of Museum Month.

“Seattle Museum Month offers a perfect opportunity for a cultural getaway on a budget,” says Visit Seattle’s Senior Director of Cultural Tourism, Tracey Wickersham. “Whether you are traveling with a family, a group of friends, or a romantic getaway partner, there’s nothing like filling your February days in Seattle with exploration through fun, engaging, and thought-provoking exhibitions, especially with a cozy hotel to return to.” 

A selection of Seattle Museums include:

  • Chihuly Garden and Glass
  • The Museum of Flight
  • Museum of Pop Culture (MOPOP)
  • Seattle Art Museum
  • Pacific Science Center
  • Seattle Aquarium
  • Seattle Pinball Museum

Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota

In 2022, museum visitors in the Twin Cities area contributed gross sales of $43.2 million. With more than 50 museums ready for exploration, twin cities Minneapolis and St. Paul rightfully earn a place among the top cities known for their vibrant museum scene.

The ‘most explosive museum in the world’ (Mill City Museum) sits within the remnants of the world’s largest flour mill. Another highlight is a highly acclaimed art museum that ranks among the best in the United States. Together, these two cities offer an eclectic range of museum experiences.

Highlighted museums in Minneapolis include:

  • Minneapolis Institute of Art (MIA)
  • Science Museum of Minnesota
  • Mill City Museum
  • American Swedish Institute
  • Walker Art Center
  • Minnesota Transportation Museum
  • The Bakken Museum

Scottsdale, Arizona

Often visited for its luxury hotels and resorts, the “West’s Most Western Town” is a mecca for art and culture, holding a creative energy all on its own. Travelers and art enthusiasts enjoy museums and exhibitions that showcase everything from contemporary art to the spirit of the Wild West. This museum-rich city is one of the most family-friendly places in America and offers a multitude of attractions for guests of all ages.

Some of the notable Museums in Scottsdale include:

  • Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art
  • Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West
  • Heard Museum
  • Museum of Illusions
  • Musical Instrument Museum 
  • OdySea Aquarium
  • Taliesin West (Frank Lloyd Wright’s winter home) 

Louisville, Kentucky

Sports enthusiasts find a winning combination of American sports, culture, and history in Louisville’s lively museum district, also known as “Museum Row.” Moreover, Louisville is known as the Bourbon Capital of The World. The city offers a variety of experiences with its many distilleries. Visitors can enjoy tours, tastings, and immersive journeys that delve into the heritage of bourbon and whiskey.

A selection of museums in Louisville includes:

  • Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory
  • Muhammad Ali Center
  • Kentucky Derby Museum
  • Frazier History Museum
  • Conrad-Caldwell House Museum
  • Portland Museum

The United States Takes the Lead in Museums

Americans’ love for a good story might be why the U.S. tops the list of countries with the most museums. The United States comprises nearly one-third of all museum institutions worldwide.

“As a family of history buffs, every vacation we plan must involve a museum. Whether it’s a history or art museum, there is something magical about understanding the past and how it has impacted our future,” says Jill Caren, founder of Blue Collar Brain.

A good piece of art transcends words. A fabulous piece of art resonates deeply, compelling the viewer to unravel it and share in its story.

This article was produced by Media Decision and syndicated by Our Woven Journey.

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Karee Blunt is a nationally syndicated travel journalist, focused on discovering destinations and experiences that captivate and inspire others through her writing. She is also the founder of Our Woven Journey, a travel site focused on inspiring others to create memory-making adventures with their loved ones. Karee is passionate about encouraging others to step out of their comfort zone and live the life they dream of. She is the mother of six kids, including four through adoption, and lives with her family in the Pacific Northwest. You can learn more about Karee on her about me page.