One-Third of US Museums Are At Risk Of Permanent Closure, Survey Finds

  • November 20, 2020 15:14

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The Legion of Honor in San Francisco reopened to visitors in the fall with timed tickets purchased in advance online. The Rodin Gallery is shown. Image Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Museum advocates have written over 55,000 letters to elected officials for aid

Several months into the pandemic, the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) has reported museums are still losing millions while operating on slim reserves, leaving about one-third of all institutions at risk of permanent closure. As COVID-19 cases increase across the U.S. and re-closures have begun, museum directors fear that their institutions will not be able to recover from another lockdown as over half have less than six months of financial savings remaining, a new survey finds. U.S. museums have lost an estimated $29.75 billion collectively since lockdowns began in March.

The outdoor installation by Chris Burden, Urban Light, 2008, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Gordon Family Foundation's gift to "Transformation: The LACMA Campaign," © Chris Burden Estate

Varying local guidelines and considerations from coast to coast have impacted museums. In Los Angeles, LACMA's galleries remain closed, while visitors can enjoy its public art, shopping and dining in an outdoor setting, albeit with a curfew. Since November 20, Chris Urban's popular outdoor installation Urban Light will be closed to the public 10 pm–6 am daily, in accordance with Los Angeles County guidelines for non-essential businesses. New restrictions may be ahead as Los Angeles County faces a surge in cases.

Starting on November 23, the Smithsonian Institution will shutter all of its Washington, DC-area museums. The Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Barnes Foundation, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and other Philadelphia institutions released a joint statement announcing closures from Friday, November 20. 

“The financial state of U.S. museums is moving from bad to worse,” said Laura Lott, President and CEO of AAM. “30% of museums remain closed since the March lockdown and those that have reopened are operating on an average of 35% of their regular attendance—a reduction that is unsustainable long-term. Those that did safely serve their communities this summer do not have enough revenue to offset higher costs, especially during a potential winter lockdown. Without financial help, we could see thousands of museums shutter forever.”

Conducted by AAM and Seattle-based Wilkening Consulting, the October survey of 850 museum directors asked the same questions as the June pulse of the field, and gathered some new data and benchmark metrics for members. Museum directors responded to the AAM survey on behalf of their organizations, representing a broad cross-section of the field geographically, by size, and by discipline.

“The new survey provides a window into the museum field during the pandemic and how institutions of all sizes are dealing with the financial crisis and how local communities are affected,” said Susie Wilkening. On average, individual museums through October lost about $850,000 in revenue in 2020 due to the pandemic. Larger institutions have reported even greater losses, with the Metropolitan Museum of Art earlier projecting a $150 million shortfall. By the end of the year, directors anticipate losing the equivalent of 35% of their annual operating income. 

Wilkening stated, “While museums are creatively finding ways to replace the traditional revenue model, they are falling short of in-person visits and events. As an example, on average, virtual fundraising events fell short of goals for the original in-person events by 34%.”

For those museums that did reopen, each museum spent an average of about $30,000, with some as much as $750,000 to reopen safely. More than half of responding museums have had to furlough or lay off staff. Overall, respondents indicate that approximately 30% of staff are currently out of work. Museums most frequently listed the following positions as being affected by the layoffs: frontline (68%), education (40%), security/maintenance (29%), and collections staff (26%).

Prior to the pandemic, museums supported 726,000 direct and indirect jobs and contributed $50 billion each year to the economy, according to AAM research.

“As museums are filling critical education gaps across the country, they are pleading with their federal, state, and local governments to provide the much-needed support to recover from this crisis,” Lott said. “Congress and the Administration are failing museums.” With public support for museums being robust regardless of political persuasion, advocates across the country have sent nearly 55,000 letters to their elected officials about the desperate need that exists to ensure the future stability of the U.S. economy, educational system, and communities.


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