A New Report Shows Museums Had A Bad Year — But Not The Worst Possible

Jun 1, 2021
Originally published on June 2, 2021 1:43 am

Billy Ocasio feels like one of the country's luckier museum directors. He runs the National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture, still standing strong in Chicago after the pandemic wiped out dozens of small museums across the country.

"About 33% of our operating budget was lost," he tells NPR. His small museum cut programming but not its three full-time employees. "I'm grateful that we did not have to lay off anybody, to keep everybody employed."

The Chicago museum came out ahead, according to a new study from the American Alliance of Museums. Of the 1,000 museum directors it surveyed, three-quarters reported their operating incomes fell by an average of 40% in 2020. And half said their total staff size had decreased by an average of 29% compared with pre-pandemic levels. (This number included voluntary departures, such as retirements.) Only 44% plan to rehire or increase their staff size in the coming year.

Museums are more than lovely places to spend an afternoon, says Laura Lott, president and CEO of the American Alliance of Museums. "Museums are economic engines," she tells NPR. "Pre-pandemic they contributed over $50 billion to the U.S. [gross domestic product]. They employed about three-quarters of a million people " — as many as the aviation industry — "and they are often the tourist destination in cities large and small."

She points out that as well as having to juggle balance sheets and try to save staff jobs — while losing income from events and school trips — museum directors have had to invest money in sanitizing and improving heating, ventilating and air conditioning systems, and making other expensive changes on tight margins. On average, museums spent about $300,000 on closing, preparing to reopen and reopening in response to the pandemic. The average pandemic financial loss per museum, according to the study, was close to $700,000 — and a lot of museums weren't able to cut enough to make up for that loss.

In 2020, the American Alliance of Museums got a lot of attention from another survey predicting a third of U.S. museums could permanently close due to the pandemic. Right now, about 85% of directors believe there is no significant risk of their museum's permanent closure in the next six months. But that leaves 15% of museums whose directors confirmed there was a "significant risk of permanent closure" or they "didn't know" if they would survive the next six months absent additional financial relief.

Fifteen percent might not sound like that many. But imagine 15% of the museums in your community closing. Which would you want to lose? Nationally, Lott says, we're talking about the loss of more than 5,000 U.S. museums, each of them in some way a treasure.

This story was edited for radio by Petra Mayer and adapted for the web by Neda Ulaby and Petra Mayer.

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The future of American museums seemed dire about a year ago. An association of museum directors predicted the pandemic might permanently close as many as a third of museums. But the same group has good news - well, at least better news - about museums now. NPR's Neda Ulaby has more.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: How stressful was 2020 for museum directors?

BILLY OCASIO: Oh, very stressful.

ULABY: That's Billy Ocasio of the National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts & Culture in Chicago. It's still standing strong after the pandemic wiped out dozens of small museums all over the country. Ocasio was afraid his might be among them.

OCASIO: We knew there was a risk of closing permanently.

ULABY: Ocasio lost about 33% of his annual operating budget, but he was lucky. He did not have to lay off a single member of his tiny staff of three, putting him way ahead of the average American museum that's lost almost 30% of its staff. That's according to a survey out today from the American Alliance of Museums, run by Laura Lott, who says many museums operate on the slimmest of margins.

LAURA LOTT: Museums have incurred hundreds of thousands of dollars of expenses to keep their places clean and safe, to upgrade their HVAC systems.

ULABY: All while losing income from school trips and events. On average, museums were shuttered for 28 weeks because of the pandemic and spent $300,000 on closing and reopening. In all, the average pandemic financial loss per museum was close to $700,000.

OCASIO: You know, when you have a small budget, it just gets very, very costly.

ULABY: Billy Ocasio says his museum had to cut programming pretty much completely. But like 90% of museum workers across the country, his staff decided to up their digital game.

OCASIO: We taught people how to cook online. We taught people how to visit different parts of Puerto Rico online.


JESSICA VAN DOP DEJESUS: San Juan has good food.

ULABY: That's one of the museum's videos offering COVID-era escapism. But too many museums now still face significant risk of permanent closure, says Laura Lott. Fifteen percent say they may not survive the year.

LOTT: Museums have this air of permanence about them. They aren't invulnerable, and they need the public's support.

ULABY: Losing 15% of American museums, Lott says, translates to the loss of 5,000 museums across the country.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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