As Museums Slowly Reopen, One-third Could Close Forever

Museums across the world are starting to reopen, but the situation remains dire for many of them. After an estimated 90 percent of museums worldwide were forced to close at some time during the pandemic, many may never return.

According to an American Alliance of Museums (AAM) study conducted throughout June, one-third of American museum directors thought there was a significant risk their museum could close permanently.

“Our survey was done before the latest virus spikes that happened in July,” said Laura Lott, the CEO, and president of AAM, “And from what I’m hearing, if we did that survey again today it would be worse than in June, given that states are going back a phase and the virus is spiking in different places.”

While 33 percent of U.S. museums face significant risk of never reopening, around 13 percent of museums worldwide are in the same position, according to a May UNESCO study.

Two-thirds of U.S. directors surveyed also predicted they would have to make cutbacks to education, programming, and new exhibitions to deal with budget shortfalls.

Three-quarters of American museums surveyed said they provided virtual education programs to children, parents, and teachers when most museums and schools closed. Only five percent of African and Small Island Developing States (SIDS) museums were able to do the same.

Even if allowed to open to the public, museums must often abide by strict guidelines, making it a challenge to recoup financial losses. Many require purchasing tickets and selecting a time slot in advance with a reduced schedule and 50 percent or less occupancy.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that NYC museums would be allowed to open starting Aug. 24, but only at 25 percent capacity, with mandatory masks, timed ticketing, and staggered entry.

In March, the AAM asked Congress for $4 billion in aid to museums and cultural institutions and eligibility for emergency small business loans. It claimed museums were collectively losing at least $33 million a day and usually provide $50 billion a year to the U.S. economy.

Instead, Congress allocated $200 million for three major museum nonprofits to disperse to support museum operations, and also gave $25 million to the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Lott predicts, “with the funding running out, furloughs and layoffs will grow without additional financial support from the government or donors.”

Several museums across the country have closed, including Richmond’s Children’s Museum, and Los Angeles’ Annenberg Space for Photography. The most at-risk museums tend to be smaller, lacking large endowments to draw from or the resources to launch digital programs to drive revenue.

Other institutions have tried to fundraise online to save popular programs, like the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. They started a successful GoFundMe page that raised over $1.5 million to save its Space Camp program.

However, with the sheer volume of expected closings, small fundraising campaigns likely won’t save many struggling museums.

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