Museum Moneyball

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I was out for dinner with clients recently and the subject of Moneyball came up.  One of them asked me if there were any ‘moneyball situations’ in the cultural sector.  She was lucky that we were sitting at opposite ends of the table.  Moneyball is one my favourite books.  Billy Beane is my hero.  Had I been sitting next to her, I would have talked her ear off.  The honest answer to her question would have been that there definitely are ‘moneyball situations’ in the cultural sector – too many to mention.  Moneyball situations are found in any field where objective analysis is systemically overwhelmed by the subjective bias of ‘insiders’.  That is as prevalent in our museums and galleries and theatres as it is in sport.

This is Moneyball in a nutshell.  As General Manager of the Oakland A’s, Billy Beane had a problem. How could a baseball team with a payroll of $40 million compete against teams that spent three times as much? He found that the market for players was irrational.  Players were being valued incorrectly.  The collective wisdom of baseball’s ‘insiders’ had come to overvalue some skills and overlook others.  The cloistered society of coaches, scouts and managers, most of them former players, were all products of the game and hostile to the opinions of anyone that was not. Huge salaries were lavished on home run hitting superstars, while unsung players that managed the workaday task of simply getting on base were slipping by unnoticed.

Billy Beane noticed.  Adding Ivy League statisticians to his staff, he scoured the colleges of America for the kids that other teams ignored due to their blinkered view of what constitutes a quality player.  He was able to identify and recruit the best players before others had recognised them as potential stars.  The team he put together took the 2002 baseball season by storm, winning a record 103 games despite having the second lowest payroll in the league.  Such was the ‘mysterious’ success of the Oakland A’s that Beane is now credited with changing the game.  Today, every team is run according to the template he created.

At its core, however, Moneyball is not a baseball book.  It is the story of what happens when a field is governed by a self-populating group of like-minded insiders who bring to it a hardened set of subjective values.  We see that phenomenon repeated in all walks of life, from sport to finance to politics and, yes, to heritage and the arts.

Pondering the question I was asked over dinner, I was overwhelmed by the number of parallels between baseball and culture.  The hardest part of writing this article was actually picking one.  The anachronistic obsession with tradition as a justification for decision-making; the use of data to validate decisions rather than inform them; management based on outputs rather than outcomes; the tendency to make wild generalisations from very small sample sizes; the triumph of personal experience and intuition over hard data and cold fact – echoes of the cultural sector reverberate between every line of Moneyball.

One example stands out for illustrating all of these at once, as well as the costly implications of accepting conventional wisdom at face value.  Free admission to national museums is the bastard child of lazy math and easy politics.  The policy is built on two key assertions:

  1. Admission charges are unfair – they punish the poor and favour the rich, making our cultural heritage the playground of a privileged class
  2. Free admission does not adversely impact other, charging, attractions

With every year that passes, the so-called benefits of free admission become more of a canonical belief. To question them is heresy.  Unpick either of these assertions, however, and we see how intellectually brittle the argument really is.

Fixating on the Indicator, not the Objective: Does Free Admission Really Improve Public Access?

Baseball scouts once valued Batting Average more than any other statistic.  The Batting Average is a player’s total ‘hits’ divided by his attempts at bat.  It is the probability that he will get a hit.  It was generally accepted as the most important indicator of a batter’s ability.  Players with high Batting Averages were highly paid superstars and all players were thus incentivised to swell their average by swinging away.  Here is the problem: the objective of a baseball team is not to assemble a collection of the world’s best hitters.  The objective is to win baseball games.  And there are other statistics that are far more closely correlated to winning than Batting Average – notably, the On Base Percentage and Slugging Percentage, which were being hugely undervalued.

Similarly, by way of ‘proving’ that free admission has been a success, its advocates have invested a single statistic – the number of visits – with meaning out of all proportion to the information that it actually conveys.  Simply counting the number of visits actually tells us very little.  It says nothing, for example, about who is visiting or how often.  It says nothing about what the visitor does, how long she stays, where she came from, what she did, where she went.  It doesn’t tell us if she learned anything while she was there or if she even enjoyed the experience.  To the extent that the data tells us anything, it actually says the opposite of what the free admission lobby wants to hear – it says that admission prices are not the barrier to attendance by lower socio-economic groups that we are supposed to think they are.

Before the charges were removed, audiences were skewed towards the more affluent socio-economic groups.  Put simply: upper class people went to museums; working class people didn’t.  Naturally, if you take the admission charge away then visitor numbers will go up. Reduce the price on anything and demand will increase.  But if it is true that price sensitivity is the reason that the upper classes visit museums more than the working class, then removal of the admission charge should have seen a proportionally larger increase in visits from the latter compared to the former. That didn’t happen.  In most cases, the proportions stayed the same. In some cases, numbers went up in aggregate, but the composition of visits actually skewed even more heavily towards what MORI diplomatically calls ‘traditional visitor groups’.  A less diplomatic conclusion is this: poor people in the regions are now paying for rich people in London to go to museums more often.

Counting the number of visits tells us almost nothing about who is visiting, how often or why

The standard defence is that visitor numbers went up across the board.  The bottom line, so they say, is that more people from lower socio-economic groups are going to museums now than were going before.   Does it really matter what the relative proportions are?Yes, it does.  It demonstrates that the price elasticity of demand for a museum experience is broadly the same for a poor person as it is for a rich person.  If the objective is to make public access more equitable, then it says, quite simply: price doesn’t matter.  It isn’t the admission charge that is causing the visitor profile to be so heavily skewed.  It must be something else.

Just like baseball scouts that obsessed over batting average, we have developed a fetish for visitor numbers as an end in its own right.  The numbers went up so the policy must be a success.  By fixating on the indicator, we forget the objective.  It prevents us from asking the more important question:  if price doesn’t matter, then what does?  Why aren’t poor people as captivated by museums as rich people?  The data sheds light on that too, for anyone who cares to look.  There is a strong correlation between levels of educational attainment and propensity to visit museums.  This suggests that collections are not being interpreted in a way that resonates with audiences from lower social classes. Where is the pressure to fix that?

Look inside any cultural attraction that charges – be it the National Trust or English Heritage, Historic Royal Palaces or the Royal Opera House – and you will find an organisation at war with itself.  On one side are curatorial purists who are singularly concerned with authenticity.  On the other side are commercial pragmatists who would twist the content as far as they could to wring out another visit.  That isn’t a criticism.  Tension is good.  That’s the way it should be.  Out of that tension, a balance is struck that makes these organisations intellectually rigorous, but accessible too.  It’s what makes the Tower of London fun without turning it into a theme park.  It’s why we can enjoy, every now and then, The Music of Sting performed by the London Symphony Orchestra.  This battle rages in the Nationals too, but making them free-to-enter is like arming only one side of the struggle.  When the single biggest challenge to bringing in visitors is simply opening the doors, then those who would find fresh and inventive ways to reach new audiences are inevitably weakened.

Institutional Capture by Subjective ‘Insiders’: Does Free Admission Help or Hurt the Sector?

Moneyball captured the imagination because it describes a clash of ideologies – grizzled veterans of the game versus upstart students of game theory.  Despite a growing clamour about the folly of traditional thinking, the scouts and managers clung to the belief that only those who had played the game could ever truly understand it. It was, of course, just self-preservationist hokum.  As a former player, Billy was an insider; a ‘baseball guy’.  His great contribution was not in the field of performance analysis.  He was no great statistician.  He was the agent of change: an insider who had the temerity to listen to outsiders.

The cultural sector is similar inasmuch as it measures, monitors and reports on itself, with all of the institutional bias that that entails.  All of the data used to evaluate museums is collected and interpreted by the museums and then reported to DCMS, which is politically invested in their perceived success.  It is no wonder that, in such a cosseted environment, some bewildering claims go unchallenged and important questions are never asked.  Indeed, the best evidence that logic has abandoned the free admission debate – if, indeed, it still is a debate, and not a fait accompli contested only by a few of us barbarian cranks – it is the argument that free admission does not impact negatively on other arts, cultural and leisure attractions.

How can it not?  The market is finite.  Time is as big a limitation on our choices as money, and time spent in a national museum – which is free – is time that we do not spend somewhere else that may charge.  This is especially true for tourists, whose time is extremely scarce and who will only visit one or two or three attractions at most.

I sympathise with all of the small, independent museums and attractions, as well as other arts and cultural organisations that add variety and richness to the offer, especially in London.  They are forced to work doubly hard for every visit because they operate in a free admission environment.  The cultural landscape would be even richer without the policy, which discourages other organisations from even entering the market.  We have seen good projects die on the drawing board because they would not be competitive with London’s free-to-enter museums.

A reasonable question deserves a robust answer.  In 2007, the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee on Collections Care begrudgingly asked the question:

“We recognise the achievements which the sponsored museums have been able to make through offering free entry, but more needs to be done to ensure that their success is not being achieved at the expense of museums which rely on entry charges for their continued existence. We recommend that research should be undertaken to determine exactly what effect the free entry policy has had on the sector as a whole.” (DCMS, 2007)

The Government’s answer was less than robust, but it was searingly revealing:

“Free entry has been an amazing success, leading to an 87% increase in visits to the institutions that formerly charged for entry. … We have not seen any compelling evidence that providing free admission to these institutions has unfairly skewed visitor numbers to other museums. … Rather, free admission to the national museums has been recognised across the world as an innovative policy designed to promote public access to permanent public collections. Its success can be illustrated by the fact that other countries are now looking to follow suit, most recently France. We do not propose, therefore, to conduct the research that the Committee recommends. We have no intention of abolishing the policy, which we view as extremely successful.” (DCMS, 2007)

Alerted to a possible problem, the explicit response of Government is to avoid researching the problem because there is no evidence of a problem.  The argument is circular enough to make your head spin.

Such extraordinary bias was understandable in 2007.  It was a Thatcher government that arms-lengthed the Nationals and forced them to charge, so it was not surprising that Labour reversed the policy and then trumpeted their success as ‘evidenced’ by the increase in visits.  What was surprising was that Jeremy Hunt, newly installed as the Culture Secretary of an austerity government, could not confirm fast enough that free admission was sacrosanct.  In an article last year celebrating the 10th anniversary of the policy’s implementation, Charlotte Higgins wrote:

“The principle of free national museums has become political orthodoxy: the Conservative culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has made a point of never challenging it.” (Guardian, November 28, 2011)

Troublingly, she thinks that this is a good thing.  But the word ‘orthodoxy’ is disturbing.  It is reminiscent of how baseball had been captured, controlled and mismanaged by a locker room clique of old-school traditionalists who so willingly swallowed myth and superstition as fact.  To accept without question a policy that costs some £50 million per annum and may not deliver its stated objectives is precisely that: a ‘moneyball situation’ of the highest order.