What does it cost to rent a traveling exhibition?

The costs to rent a traveling exhibit vary widely depending on the size, complexity, subject matter, and underlying objectives of exhibition owners.

To visualize the diversity of costs, we look at the Traveling Exhibitions Database (TED). It includes a database of 768 current traveling exhibitions available in the U.S. The following is the distribution of sizes (square feet) vs. costs ($USD) of traveling exhibits:

The X-axis is the size of the traveling exhibit, in square feet. Note that while prices vary widely, if we look at the subject areas, only science/technology exhibitions and one natural history exhibition reach prices of ~$200k and above. Anthropology maxxes out at $100k, and children’s exhibits top out around $75k. The above graph represents N=332 records from the TED database from Informal Learning Experiences (ILE). Some prices are for 1 month, and some for 3-4 month terms; most 1-month rentals have a lower per-month cost for additional months. These are traveling exhibits that require open space (as opposed to flat wall space), and excludes exhibitions that do not publicize their asking prices. Also, according to Mac West, principal of ILE, the TED data does not include the blockbusters — i.e., large exhibitions from major museum consortia or large scale commercial vendors, like the Harry Potter exhibit discussed earlier in the week.

Among large science museums, the costs hover in the $50k to $250k range. According to John Shaw, Director of Production & Fabrication for COSI Columbus, for 3-month rentals, their “Zula Patrol: Mission Weather” (1,000-1,500 sq ft) rents for $40,000, and “Lost Egypt” (5,500-6,000 sq ft) rents for $225,000. He says, “Many other exhibits available fall between this range. We prefer a fixed rental fee model.” Dennis Bateman, Director of Exhibit Experience for the Carnegie Science Center says, “Fees can range from $50K for a small rental to $250K for a large one. Or more; also, revenue-sharing may apply.  There is really no ‘norm.’” Traveling exhibitions for children hover in a less expensive range. At the Children’s Museum of Houston, Sharon Smallwood, their Traveling Exhibit Manager, says rental fees for their  7 traveling exhibits “start at $17,000 and go to $60,000.”

Plus shipping costs

“Another cost is shipping, gallery preparation, staffing, marketing/promotion of exhibition, public programs,” says Michelle Torres-Carmona of the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service.

Mr. Shaw says, “Shipping and setup labor are by far the biggest costs. Shipping can be up to $50,000 for a large exhibit. We usually estimate $20,000-$30,000 for shipping. Setup and take down labor varies by exhibit requirements but often ends up being around $20,000. We generally budget $40,000-$60,000 for shipping and installation costs. Travel and labor for an exhibit supervisor to oversee the setup and takedown is usually included in the rental fee.” For smaller exhibits, Sheri Cifaldi-Morrill, Director of Exhibit Design and Delivery for the Stepping Stones Museum for Children says that, “most exhibits in the 1,500-2,500 sq. ft. range cost between $2,500-$6,000 to transport.”

Exhibition owners prefer to book their traveling exhibitions back to back to avoid storage fees and unnecessary shipping. Hosts typically pay only incoming shipping (the next host pays for the exhibit to leave), and so hosts often offer big discounts at the last minute for un-rented exhibitions so they can avoid outbound shipping and storage, and have some revenue. (See 11th hour prices from TED.)

According to Wendy Hancock, the Exhibition Services Manager for ASTC,  the ballpark storage costs are $1000/month for storage per truck. A 5000 sq ft show may occupy 3 trucks. The contents are unloaded into a warehouse. Sometimes shipping costs for a show that is zigzagging the country are shared across all the hosts.

“Many times, hosting museums want to get contracts signed so that they can arrange for the shipping of the exhibition in advance. That way, fuel surcharges are locked in,” says Nathan Stalvey, Curator/Exhibitions Director, of the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory. He adds that shipping “cost is largely dependent on number of crates and total weight.  Shipping companies use this information to determine the amount of space they need to have on the truck (or trucks) to ship the exhibition.  Also, shipping costs for exhibitions that require shipment on climate-controlled trucks as opposed to non-climate controlled trucks are always considerably higher.  The majority of traveling exhibitions out there require travel on climate-controlled trucks.”

For smaller exhibitions, shipping can be much more manageable, if not free. Mr. Stalvey says, “On the other hand, if you look at smaller exhibitions where a hosting venue may be within a few hours drive, oftentimes a representative from the hosting museum will send two people in a rental truck to pick up the exhibition and take it to their museum personally.  This saves a great deal on shipping costs.” Similarly, Kristie Maher of the South Dakota Discovery Center says that they specialize in refurbishing small exhibits, and they only work with local libraries, community centers and schools. “[Our] exhibits travel in cargo trailers. The host provides a driver to tow it from the last location to their location.”

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