Independent museums are ‘hardest hit’ by Covid-19 crisis

Art Fund says the sector will need a balance of emergency grants and support for longer-term recovery
Jonathan Knott
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Independent museums are the worst hit by the coronavirus crisis, according to a new report from Art Fund.

Research for the charity by Wafer Hadley found that independent institutions “look to be hardest hit in the short term, particularly those reliant on ticket income and summer visitors”.

Local authority services “appear safer at present”. But the report says these are likely to struggle in the medium term due to the continuing financial impact of the pandemic.

The authors say “there is a strong feeling that not all museums and galleries can or will survive this”.

Researchers surveyed more than 100 museum and gallery directors and more than 300 staff across all UK nations, including a range of sizes and types of organisation. They also carried out in-depth interviews with directors and focus groups with marketing and collections professionals.

The research found that more than half of staff were worried about their roles. 
Employees in independents and nationals were more likely to report this than those in local authority-run services.
Three quarters of staff in independents (74%) were worried about the future of their organisations, alongside 61% of staff in local authority museums.

Almost all the organisations involved (98%) had cancelled or postponed exhibitions in response to the pandemic, with most exhibitions postponed until 2021.

The vast majority of participants (86%) had increased their online presence and content, and just over half (56%) had refunded tickets.

All the respondents were planning for multiple reopening scenarios, says the report: “Some venues are planning to open in late summer, some in autumn and some in the new year”.

Reopening is likely to start with outdoor areas and larger indoor spaces. Some venues fear that the cost of managing social distancing in small spaces could outweigh the advantages of reopening. Managing hygiene for interactive experiences is also a concern.

The biggest concern for directors, reported by 85%, is attracting visitors back, followed by the wellbeing of staff and dependants (76%).

The effects of the pandemic mean that “senior professionals are looking further ahead to a radically changed environment”. Business plans are being revised and “may look very different”.

It is expected that there will be less money from philanthropy and sponsorship in future, and that collections-based shows will replace “bought-in exhibitions and blockbusters” over the coming years.

One director said: “I think there are three phases to this: the current lockdown phase, a second phase where we re-open to the public but in very different circumstances around social distancing, and a third phase where we adjust to a ‘new normal’ of considerably reduced budgets."

Increased marketing support for reopening was seen by directors as the most helpful new activity that Art Fund could undertake in the short term: 90% felt this would be beneficial. Large proportions of directors also felt they would benefit from support for producing online content (85%) and for digital and tech infrastructure (78%).

Over the medium term, directors felt that funding for reopening programming would be the most helpful activity (72%).

The report says that “most organisations are focused on the immediate challenges of getting ‘back to normal’, but in the longer-term new models and ways of working will have to evolve. Facilitating those discussions and providing support and encouragement, particularly on sharing and mutual support models, will be vital”.

Art Fund says that the situations faced by different types of museum means that “funding needs to be phased” and balanced between covering immediate costs and support for recovery. It says it is important for funders to work closely together to address the sector’s needs.

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