June 1, 2021 — The American Alliance of Museums (AAM) today confirmed the dire economic harm to museums caused by the COVID-19 pandemic with new survey data revealing that the field faces a long road to recovery.
“The museum field will take years to recover to pre-pandemic levels of staffing, revenue, and community engagement,” said Laura Lott, AAM president and CEO. “Far fewer museums than expected are in danger of permanent closure thanks to several federal relief programs. However, average income sank 40 percent during the pandemic with museums predicting a slow financial recovery.”
Over 1,000 museum directors responded to the new AAM survey on behalf of their organizations, representing a broad cross-section of the field geographically, by size, and by discipline. The survey, conducted by AAM and Wilkening Consulting and fielded April 6-30, tracked key metrics the Alliance began to collect in June 2020, as well as assessing the overall impact to museums’ financial condition. The April survey was the third completed in the past 18 months.
The results of this survey document profound damage inflicted on US museums by the pandemic.
- Three-quarters of museums (76 percent) report that their operating income fell an average of 40 percent in 2020 while their doors were closed to the public an average of 28 weeks due to the pandemic.
- Museums have largely been unable to offset losses by cutting expenditures. Nearly two-thirds of institutions (61 percent) report that their net operating performance decreased, by an average of 38 percent.
- About 85 percent of directors now believe there is no significant risk of their museum’s permanent closure in the next six months; 15 percent (the equivalent of over 5,000 US museums) 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.
- While 15 percent of museums at high financial risk is still a painful prospect, this is a considerable improvement from the AAM survey conducted in October 2020 when nearly one-third of museum directors surveyed believed there was a “significant risk” of closing permanently by fall 2021, or they “didn’t know” if they would survive.
- Nearly half (46 percent) of museums surveyed report that their total staff size has decreased by an average of 29 percent compared with pre-pandemic levels. Only 44 percent of all respondents plan to rehire or increase their staff size in the coming year. Pre-pandemic museums supported 726,000 jobs.
- 59 percent of responding museums were forced to cut back on education, programming, and other public services due to budget shortfalls and/or staff reductions during the pandemic.
- Thirty-nine percent of responding museums have plans to make investments into their building, HVAC equipment, and other infrastructure to improve energy efficiency and reduce the environmental impact of their operations. The average anticipated cost of these improvements is $668,000 per museum.
“Despite economic distress, museums have been filling critical gaps in our communities,” Lott 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.”