A third of museums in the U.S. could shutter in the next year

The Hits Keep Coming

A third of museums in the U.S. could shutter in the next year

The Tenement Museum at 103 Orchard Street in Manhattan focused on the lived experiences of immigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries. The museum was also forced to make deep staffing cuts today. (Paul Rivera)

A survey released by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) yesterday paints a dire portrait of the state of museum operations in the United States; 33 percent of the museum directors polled predicted their institutions wouldn’t last another 16 months without outside help.

The AAM’s survey polled 760 museum directors across the country between June 8 and June 30, and covered museums of all sizes and scopes. The results were unencouraging, to say the least. Reads the AAM’s summary of their findings:

The survey results document extreme financial distress in the museum field. One-third (33%) of respondents were not confident they would be able to survive 16 months without additional financial relief, and 16 percent felt their organization was at significant risk of permanent closure. The vast majority (87%) of museums have only 12 months or less of financial operating reserves remaining, with 56% having less than six months left to cover operations. Forty-four percent had furloughed or laid off some portion of their staff, and 41 percent anticipated reopening with reduced staff.

Although close to 50 percent of the museums surveyed reported operating budgets of over $500,000, their size seems to have done little to inoculate them from the economic fallout from prolonged closures due to the coronavirus pandemic. Forty-one percent of museums predicted that they would have to reopen with reduced staff, while ten percent were unsure and the remaining 49 percent didn’t foresee the need to cut back.

Digging into the operating reserves each institution has on hand presented a starker picture, as mentioned above. Twelve percent of museums said they only had enough cash on hand to weather the next two months, while 20 percent indicated they only had enough for the next three-to-four months. Twenty-four percent indicated their reserves would only last another five-to-six months, 11 percent replied that they had enough to carry them for the next seven-to-eleven months, and 23 percent responded that they could last for another 12-to-18 months.

These critical numbers shouldn’t come as a surprise. A number of formerly prestigious institutions have been forced to close as of late, including L.A.’s A+D Museum (which is going totally digital), and UNESCO and the International Council of Museums have predicted that 13 percent of all museums worldwide might never reopen. Even some institutions that are still technically in operation have been forced to dramatically slash staff; Washington, D.C.’s National Building Museum cut two-thirds of their positions in May, and just today, New York’s Tenement Museum laid off all of its part-time educators, or 91 percent of education staff. The museum expects that it will need to cut its pre-pandemic budget of $11 million in half to weather the rest of the year.