The Effects of the Pandemic May Not Be Quite as Devastating for American Museums as Once Feared, a New Survey Finds

Fifteen percent of surveyed museums are at risk of closing now. This time last year, it was 30 percent.

Visitors line up as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York reopens to the public on August 29, 2020. Photo: Kena Betancur / AFP via Getty Images.
Visitors line up as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York reopens to the public on August 29, 2020. Photo: Kena Betancur / AFP via Getty Images.

A year ago, the outlook for U.S. museums appeared grim: a July 2020 survey conducted by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) found that one-third of institutions across the country could close due to the devastating effects of the pandemic. 

But now, things may be starting to look up. A new report by AAM—the professional organization’s third such survey since March of 2020—suggests that 15 percent of museums are at risk of closure. That’s an improved number to be sure, but a sobering one, too. 

Indeed, if there’s a message to take away from the survey, it’s that museums’ prospects are better, but still bleak. 

“The museum field will take years to recover to pre-pandemic levels of staffing, revenue, and community engagement,” said Laura Lott, AAM’s president and CEO, in a statement. 

More than 1,000 museum directors were surveyed for the report, which was conducted in April and released this week. More than three-quarters of them noted that their operating income dropped by an average of 40 percent. 

Twenty-two percent of museums had to lay off full-time staff; 28 percent had to cut part-time employees. Just 44 percent of institutions went through the pandemic without furloughing anyone. 

Worryingly, nearly 60 percent of museums were forced to cut back on education, programming, and other public services.

On average, museums were closed for 28 weeks because of the health crisis. Of course, that number isn’t static, either: 29 percent of respondents have yet to reopen. Those that have are expecting visitor numbers to come in at just 41 percent of pre-pandemic figures. (AAM’s fall survey, released in November 2020, found similar numbers.) 

Focussing on the positive, Lott pointed to the contributions museums made during a turbulent time. 

“Despite economic distress, museums have been filling critical gaps in our communities,” she said. “During the pandemic, museum professionals—severely impacted by the pandemic themselves—stepped up by serving the needs of their communities by supporting an education system in crisis; donating PPE and addressing food insecurity; and providing reliable information on COVID-19 and vaccinations.” (Lott elaborated on museums’ ability to help public schools in an October 2020 Artnet News op-ed.)

Read AAM’s full National Snapshot of COVID-19 Impact on United States Museums survey here.

Follow Artnet News on Facebook:

Want to stay ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to get the breaking news, eye-opening interviews, and incisive critical takes that drive the conversation forward.


Subscribe or log in to read the rest of this content.

You are currently logged into this Artnet News Pro account on another device. Please log off from any other devices, and then reload this page continue. To find out if you are eligible for an Artnet News Pro group subscription, please contact [email protected]. Standard subscriptions can be purchased on the subscription page.

Log In