Empty Galleries, Empty Wallets

Museums and other vital cultural institutions feel the coronavirus squeeze

The Met and other vital museums and institutions will remain closed for weeks to come. But will they be able to survive once the all-clear is given by health officials? (Regan Vercruysse/Flickr)

Esteemed museums and cultural institutions across Asia including Shanghai’s Power Station of Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, and South Korea’s Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art are in the process of gradually reopening their doors following an aggressive lockdown period meant to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). The reopening of museums in particularly hard-hit countries is a sign that there’s a light at the end of an unknowingly long, dark tunnel.

In the United States, however, it’s not yet clear when some of the country’s most beloved and highly trafficked museums will reopen, if at all. Some have optimistically posted reopening dates but these, of course, are tentative as not even leading health experts are certain what the coming days and weeks will bring.

Already, some museums are indicating that when they do eventually reopen, operations might be permanently impacted. It’s not yet clear how this might take shape, although limited operating hours, altered admission charges, reduced programming, and hiring freezes are all likely for institutions big and small. And if the SOS signals being sent out by New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, a formidable institution with seemingly vast financial resources, are any indication, America’s cultural landscape will forever be altered in the post-coronavirus era.

“This is an extraordinarily challenging time for us all,” wrote Daniel H. Weiss, president and chief executive of the Met, and Max Hollein, the museum’s director in a letter recent letter. “As staff members of The Met we all have a profound responsibility to protect and preserve the treasured institution we inherited.”

As recently reported by The Art Newspaper, the Met, which will remain shuttered until at least July 1, is anticipating a $100 million shortfall as a direct result of the pandemic. In 2018-2019, the Met, facing a mounting deficit problem, enjoyed a healthy surge of revenue from a new ticketing scheme that abandoned an across-the-board “pay what you wish” donation model in favor of charging non-New Yorkers $25 a head for admission. While controversial, the Met experienced record attendance during the 2018 fiscal year with the new admissions policy in place, bringing in $8 to $11 million in additional revenue. The museum’s fiscal budget for 2018 was $320 million with 16 percent, or $48 million, coming from ticket sales. The following fiscal year was even stronger with upped admissions ($55 million in revenue), a dramatic bump in endowment support, and increased retail sales.

Even if it lasts just a few months, the coronavirus shutdown could undo more than two years of financial progress made by the immensely well-funded Met. And this, as the New York Times, points out, is a troubling sign for other cultural institutions in New York and beyond:

The Met is an important canary in the coal mine for arts institutions all over the country; when the museum announced on March 12 that it was closing, others followed close behind. If even a behemoth like the Met—with an operating budget of $320 million and an endowment of $3.6 billion—is anticipating such a steep financial hit, smaller institutions may not be able to survive at all.

It’s worth noting that the Met doesn’t plan to dip into its sizable endowment­—which has since shrunk as the stock market declines—as a resource and that a hefty portion of the loss incurred during and after the closure won’t come from ticket sales but from the normally deep wallets of wealthy donors becoming a bit more constrained.



The Met has not yet parted ways with any employees but furloughs, layoffs, and voluntarily retirements will be evaluated at the beginning of April. And provided it reopens as planned in July, it will do so “with a reduced program and lower cost structure that anticipates lower attendance for at least the next year due to reduced global and domestic tourism and spending,” reads the letter from Weiss and Hollein.

Laura Lott, president and chief executive of the nonprofit American Alliance of Museums, relayed to the Times that museums and other cultural institutions that aren’t the Met may never reopen at all. She noted that three-quarters of museums in the U.S. are now temporarily shuttered and that one-third of them will never reopen once the pandemic eventually passes.

“This situation is by far more dire than anything I have experienced in my 25 years of being an arts finance professional,” said Lott.

A recent national survey released by Americans for the Arts estimated financial losses in the nonprofit arts sector to be roughly $3.2 billion in total to date, a sum that includes both income from admissions and non-admissions revenue sources like gift shop sales, sponsorships, and the like.

As COVID-19 bears down on the U.S., Americans for the Arts and other organizations have lobbied Congress for much-needed help in the form of $4 billion in aid that would be part of the $2 trillion economic stimulus package meant to jump-start the flailing American economy and help families and workers. As of now, that package includes $25 million earmarked for the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., and $75 million for the National Endowment of the Arts, a vital federal program already made vulnerable by the Trump administration.

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