One third of American museums at risk of closure - Museums Association

One third of American museums at risk of closure

Report from the American Alliance of Museums paints grim picture for the sector
Covid-19
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Rebecca Atkinson
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Pictured: the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which has laid off a fifth of its staff since March
Pictured: the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which has laid off a fifth of its staff since March Sushuti, Pixabay

One third of American museums are at risk of permanent closure as a result of the ongoing Covid pandemic, a report from the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) has warned.

The alliance’s second National Snapshot of Covid-19, undertaken by Wilkening Consulting during October, surveyed 850 museum directors and found that on average each institution has lost $850,000 in revenue so far this year. Respondents report losing on average 35% of budgeted operating income in 2020, and anticipate losing a further 28% in 2021.

As expected this is largely due to a dramatic drop in visitor numbers, with museums operating at, on average, 35% of their capacity.

Just half of those surveyed had six months or less of operating reserves available, with 82% reporting reserves of 12 months or less.  

While 30% of museums remain closed, those that have reopened have paid a potentially high price, with the average cost of reopening $27,000 per museum. The highest cost to an individual museum taking part was $750,000.

As a result, 12% of directors say they are at significant risk of closing by next autumn and 17% don’t know if they will survive this crisis.

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Many museums have already responded to the pandemic by reducing staffing costs, with 53% of those surveyed furloughing or laying off staff.

Overall, respondents indicate that about 30% of staff are currently out of work.  Positions most impacted by staffing reductions included frontline (68%), education (40%), security/maintenance (29%), and collections (26%).

And while directors taking part in the survey say they have looked to replace traditional revenue models with digital fundraising events, these fall 34% short of traditional in-person activities on average.

“The financial state of US museums is moving from bad to worse,” said Laura Lott, the president and chief executive officer of the 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.”

It is unclear what financial help if any president-elect Joe Biden might offer the cultural heritage sector after he is inaugurated on 20 January.

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In a statement congratulating the Democratic Party’s win in the 2020 election over incumbent president Donald Trump, advocacy group Americans for the Arts described Biden as “a strong supporter of the arts” and expressed optimism about vice-president elect Kamala Harris’s “long history of personal engagement with cultural institutions”.

Nina Ozlu Tunceli, the executive director of Americans for the Arts Action Fund, said: “We have great hope for a pro-arts administration. As federal efforts are considered to rebuild the nation's economy, we urge targeted federal policies to tap creative workers, nonprofit arts and cultural organisations, and arts-related businesses and minority-run organisations to be featured in any infrastructure, workforce development, economic, and education efforts.”

The AAM's Lott said museums were “pleading” with federal, state, and local governments for financial support to help them survive and recover from the crisis.

She warned: “Congress and the administration are failing museums.”

Comments (1)

  1. Kevin Coffee says:

    The financial condition of American museums is due to their private status and the fact that most lack any broad social support while a few (not incidentally, those grounded in colonialism and the projection of power) are richly endowed by local elites. A more fundamental question is whether (and which of) these organizations are needed and with what mission or purpose.

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