Visitor numbers to US museums, once promising, have plummeted, showing the ongoing impact of the pandemic on the cultural industries

There was a brief window of optimism last year when museum leaders believed audiences would return to pre-pandemic levels. Institutions across the US over the past Memorial Day weekend set new records for visitor numbers since the pandemic, with the Museum of Modern Art recording 9,000 guests, even higher than at the same time in 2019. Logic dictated that once governments lift travel restrictions and ease Covid-19 guidelines, museums will would go back to work as usual.

Not quite.

Current data collected by Artnet from more than a dozen museums across the country suggests that visitor numbers have slowed, with some cultural institutions noting that visitor numbers have stagnated or fallen over the past year.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, an industry pioneer during the pandemic, has devised a variety of bold marketing campaigns to lure audiences back to the Great Hall, including date nights and a rooftop array of electronic music. The craze helped boost domestic tourism, which reached 79 percent of its pre-pandemic levels in May, alongside major exhibitions for artists such as Louise Bourgeois and Charles Ray.

Visitors at paintings at the Met on February 9, 2021. Photo by Angela Weiss / AFP via Getty Images.

But there’s no substitute for the international tourists who have fueled visitor numbers. In November 2021, the museum placed advertisements in cities including London, Paris and Hong Kong to encourage visitors. “We reopened in August 2020 but missed one crucial thing – you, our international visitors,” the ad reads.

International tourism once accounted for almost a third of Met visitors. When the museum advertised in newspapers around the world, a spokesman said so New York Times that the number of global visitors was about half what it was before March 2020. That figure appears to have fallen in recent months to 41 percent in May. Total attendance at the Met that month was 316,000 — about 62 percent of its same-month attendance in 2019.

The majority of museums that responded to the Artnet survey had similar recovery rates. For example, the Philadelphia Museum of Art has a 61 percent recovery rate with nearly 43,000 visitors passing through its doors in May; a spokeswoman for the Rubin Museum of Art in New York said attendance at her institution was about 63 percent of its normal size; and a representative of the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC counted 99,000 museum visitors, which corresponds to a 61 percent recovery rate.

A man adjusts his face mask as he tours the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery on Reopening Day in Washington, DC May 14, 2021. (Photo by JIM WATSON / AFP via Getty Images)

Looking at past recovery benchmarks, it appears that the museum industry has already plateaued. In February 2022, the American Alliance of Museums a opinion poll from more than 700 cultural institutions, which calculated an average attendance rate of 62 percent, indicating little progress has been made since the study was written.

“Depending on how the pandemic continues to evolve and museums are able to obtain financial assistance, we hope our area will recover financially in three to five years,” said Laura Lott, president and executive director of the American Alliance of Museums. “We assume that 2022 will continue to be a challenging year with a drop in visitors of almost 40 percent at the beginning of the year. Our nation’s museums will continue to need the support of their communities and government at all levels.”

But cultural institutions have already realigned themselves in recent years with community initiatives, wellness workshops, educational offers and pantries. The Queens Museum became a model for its focus on neighborhood programming, beginning with its year of uncertainty Campaign in 2021 along with nine local groups. Sally Tallant, the museum’s director, effectively gave the building’s keys to artists and nonprofits, including the Caribbean Equality Project (which advocates for queer immigrants), Guardians of Flushing Bay (environmental enthusiasts for water stewardship), and Malikah (organizers). for gender equality). and economic parity).

“We are deepening our relationship with our communities,” Tallant said, explaining that the museum recently adjusted its artist grant program to include full-time, $45,000 annual positions. The museum is also conducting a $30 million capital campaign to build a special children’s museum on site.

BordeAndo, year of uncertainty Community partner facilitating a ribbon weaving workshop during the Year of Uncertainty (YoU) Summer Community Camp, July 2021. Photo by Neil Constantine. Courtesy Queens Museum.

Although the Queens Museum has seen increased attendance during the pandemic, attendance still remains about 49 percent lower than normal. Tallant said the lack of school visits in recent years has severely impacted viewership, although she hopes classrooms will return to the facility in September.

Regional museums, which have been able to resume school tours and focus on local residents, appear to have suffered less than their larger counterparts when it comes to the recovery in visitor numbers. The Seattle Art Museum, for example, said its visitor recovery rate was about 88 percent, with visitor numbers increasing from 15,026 in a four-week period between April and May 2019 to 13,219 in a similar period in 2022.

“We believe that by the end of the calendar year, when we have more data to compare, we’ll have a better understanding of how we’re doing compared to pre-COVID,” said Rachel Eggers, a spokeswoman for the museum.

Perhaps an even greater challenge to recovery is the instability of institutional settings. The stock market slump early in the pandemic severely reduced the pool of financial resources available to museums in a move, as staff urged executives to use their funds to minimize layoffs and furloughs. Several organizations were concerned about the longevity of their investments, with some nonprofits such as the Brooklyn Museum selling artworks to pay salaries and other expenses associated with directly maintaining their collections.

“Markets have been strong during the pandemic and there have been increases in endowments,” said Anne Pasternak, director of the Brooklyn Museum. “Until 2022. Everyone is down. The number changes daily, but in general we have increased our endowment assets as we have received endowment gifts over this period.”

The Obama portraits will be on display at the Brooklyn Museum on August 25, 2021. (Photo by Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Major museums have been able to use the pandemic crisis to solicit more donations from donors who recognize the fragility of their favorite institutions’ finances. That may have been the case with the Met as well. At the beginning of the pandemic, the museum estimated that its endowment was likely down to $3.3 billion as of March 2020. But three months later, the museum’s endowment grew back to $3.6 billion, according to a spokesman. By the end of 2021, the museum’s endowment had increased by more than a third to $4.9 billion. (Foundation recovery is not consistent across the industry. “No, it has not recovered,” said Sara Fox, a Guggenheim spokeswoman, who omitted certain numbers in her response.)

For some museum leaders, stagnant visitor numbers and uncertain endowments speak to the ongoing economic challenges facing the recovering tourism industry. However, their challenge remains the same as when the pandemic began: museums must convince audiences that their buildings are safe and their programming is relevant.

“The museums are in a way a litmus test for New York’s recovery as a cultural destination,” Tallant said. “I think we’re learning to live differently. This pandemic is now endemic and we all need to adapt.”

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