Skip to main content

What Keeps U.S. Art Museums Running—and How Might the Pandemic Change That?

In the fall of 2020, for a special Museums Issue of the magazine published in February, ARTnews surveyed 50 key collecting art museums across the United States that help shape the culture and market around art through their size, the significance of their collections, or their stature in the communities they serve. The institutions are distributed proportionally among five regions of the U.S., and are representative of the state of the American collecting art museum before the coronavirus pandemic swept over the world. We endeavored to study museums’ finances, collections, and staffing by means of public data, financial reports, questionnaires, and interviews with directors. The data collected and used in the graphs in these pages spans the fiscal years 2016 through 2019; throughout, we present averages over that period, rather than current-year figures, to smooth the data.


For Adam Levine, the pandemic has been like living a never-ending string of Mondays.

Before the coronavirus swept across the nation, shuttering everything in its path, the Toledo Museum of Art was closed to the public on Mondays so staff could rehang galleries and do repairs. It was a quiet time without the crowds, a little lonely even. And now, every day was just like that.

“It was definitely weird,” Levine said.

It was not the homecoming he’d envisioned. For the previous 18 months, Levine had helmed the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens in Jacksonville, Florida, and he was excited to return to Toledo, where he had spent six years as the deputy director and curator of ancient art. His fiancée and their 7-year-old son hadn’t been able to join Levine in Florida, and he was ready to be reunited with them and his museum family. As one of the museum’s youngest-ever directors, at 34, had big plans for a listening tour, meeting with people over lunches, dinners, and drinks to talk about the institution’s future.

The pandemic had other ideas.

Instead of an easy transition out of one job into another one more familiar, Levine suddenly had to manage two different pandemic realities and community responses. By the time he officially started in Toledo in May, the museum had already been shuttered for nearly two months and it was not clear when it could reopen. Essential staff—such as maintenance and security workers—came in daily, as did Levine, but Zoom meetings replaced those lunches and cocktails. The halls were empty when they should have been filled with school tours.

In the liminal space of endless “Mondays,” Levine liked to walk through the Classic Court—he did, after all, start his career in the Greek and Roman Department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art—and contemplate the statue of Tanwet-amani, a nine-foot-tall black granodiorite sculpture of a Nubian pharaoh from the 25th Dynasty. It’s become a sort of touchstone for his thinking about the museum’s mission.

Adam Levine became director of the Toledo Museum just in time to face the pandemic, after spending 18 months as director of the Cummer Museum in Jacksonville, Fla. (shown above).
Adam Levine became director of the Toledo Museum just in time to face the pandemic, after spending 18 months as director of the Cummer Museum in Jacksonville, Fla. (shown above). Photo: AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about what that object means and how we tell these stories,” Levine said. “The stone is black but so too is the pharaoh. The ruler of Egypt is a Black body. We have these diverse narratives embedded in history and the powerful move for museums is to make sure the global history we tell isn’t just modern and contemporary.”

As far as pandemic-related challenges go, Levine knows he’s gotten off easy. Unlike the Met, which laid off 20 percent of its staff, Levine has kept his 227-person team intact and is hiring three new curators. He’s hoping that the twin benefits of more space and a lower cost of living will entice some top talent to the Buckeye State. “The pandemic made moving to the Midwest a very attractive proposition—and the museum sells itself,” he said.

“It’s little movements, not the big bold move, that will get us out of it—an accumulation of forward steps, a level of hopefulness.”
– Brian Ferriso, director, Portland Art Museum, Oregon

And while losses in earned revenue—money accumulated from admissions, restaurants, gift shops, parking, and other means—crippled other institutions, they haven’t had as significant an impact on the Toledo Museum of Art. Since the institution is free to the public, Levine doesn’t depend on people coming through the doors to make the budget. Still, he faces a painful—but manageable—$1.2 million loss in income.

That puts him in an enviable position, considering a recent report by the American Alliance of Museums, which suggested that one-third of the country’s museums could close permanently as a result of the pandemic. And some already have: Indianapolis Contemporary, for example, shut off its lights in April after nearly two decades. The coronavirus crisis has laid bare the many challenges of running an art museum in 2020.

“Museums were already in a vice grip because they were expected to do more and more,” said András Szántó, a consultant to cultural institutions, and author of the recently published book The Future of the Museum: 28 Dialogues. “Meanwhile, sources of funding were topping out, the list of unacceptable sources is getting longer, and the cost side is expanding.”

Now, these institutions are struggling with the loss of revenue from having to close, but also from less obvious sources, such as the canceling of memberships, fundraising galas, and donor gifts. Meanwhile, museum staffs must still be paid, and art must still be cared for. Add to that a cultural reckoning over long-standing systemic racism and inequity, and museum directors are in a perfect storm of cultural and financial crisis. What is their purpose? Whom do they serve? And how do they pay for it?

Exterior view of the Metropolitan Museum of New York at night.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art recently raised $25 million in new giving to support an emergency fund. Photo: susanne2688/

The mission of the American art museum has been shifting almost since the earliest institutions—the Peabody-Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts; the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut—were conceived in the 19th century as collections of curiosities or educational institutes filled with plaster casts of European antiquities.

When the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, opened in 1876, it did so with 50 cases of casts from Europe—and it even advised the founders of the Portland Art Museum to begin their collection the same way. The Oregon museum did so, buying its first collection—of nearly 100 such objects—for $10,000 in 1892.

Today, the MFA, Boston, has a collection of more than 500,000 objects—including original sculptures from ancient Greece and Rome, and Rembrandt’s Artist in His Studio. The link between the two eras is wealthy individuals and rising industrialists who wanted to display their treasures. Sometimes these benefactors bequeathed gifts to existing institutions, such as the MFA, but they often built new palaces of culture. In 1941, Andrew W. Mellon did both: he gifted President Franklin D. Roosevelt with the National Gallery, which he’d built and stocked. (Minus the gifting, that’s not so different from the private museums of today, such as Walmart heiress Alice Walton’s Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, or businessman Mitchell Rales’s Glenstone in Potomac, Maryland.)

Until the end of World War II, most American museums remained in the business of collecting and storing art. There was no educational mission in the modern sense; they allowed students and scholars to study the collections, but there was no commitment to the public’s edification or thoughts about storytelling and whose stories were being told. “The museum’s prime responsibility was to its collections, not its visitors,” wrote Kenneth Hudson in his essay “The Museum Refuses to Stand Still” for a 1998 issue of the academic journal Dædalus.

That began to change in the 1960s. There was a sense that museums should do more than just warehouse art; they should do something with the great treasures of humanity. Or maybe that’s what was proffered to convince Congress to approve the first federal funding of American cultural institutions—by way of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. This wasn’t meant to be the European model of funding in which most of a museum’s operating budget would be covered by the government. Even in 1965—long before the culture wars—Congress was clear: these grants were for specific projects and not general operational support.

From there, the conventional sense of museums’ mission started to creep. They began creating educational programing for the public and fighting for dollars to fund their new ideas. In the 1970s, “people-centric” became a buzzword in museum circles as directors started to see their future tied to visitors, not just collections. Hence, the blockbuster, the 1980s phenomenon designed to draw crowds and big admissions and gift shop dollars. Museums also started sending their collections to Japan for high licensing fees as a way to generate income.

“The museum field is looking at its mandate and approach in new ways. We are evolving from an object-centric institution to a people-centric institution.”
– Susan Taylor, director, New Orleans Museum of Art

By the 1990s and 2000s, certain museums realized they needed an extra wow factor to draw visitors and donors. Some museums, like the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, upscaled their gift shops and cafés, bringing in chef partners, while others went on a building boom. Between 1999 and 2013, the number of museums with tax-exempt bonds—usually a sign of a construction project—nearly tripled, according to a report by the National Bureau of Economic Research. The Guggenheim Museum’s tourist-tantalizing, Frank Gehry–designed Bilbao branch is generally considered the starchitect building boom’s kickoff (price tag: $100 million). In 2004 the Museum of Modern Art got a brand-new building designed by Yoshio Taniguchi (price tag: $425 million).

“If you could talk to someone from the 1960s and show them these gleaming museums with amenities,” Szántó said, “they would be astonished. It’s like everybody has a Ferrari.”

The escalating demand for more, more, more rolled right through to 2008, when the financial crisis hit. Over two years, the stock market plummeted 50 percent and took museums’ endowments with it. What had been safe nest eggs that produced reliable income suddenly left museums scrambling to make ends meet. The Indianapolis Museum of Art’s endowment fell by $100 million, forcing then director Maxwell Anderson to lay off more than 110 people because 75 percent of his budget came from that single source. The Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, which had been unwisely spending down its endowment, teetered on the brink of bankruptcy and had to be saved by a matching grant from billionaire trustee Eli Broad.

In the ensuing decade, markets have roared back—as have endowments—but the question of mission continues to nag at the edges, unsettled. What does it mean for museums to be responsive to their communities? Is it museums’ mission to provide an educational experience or meet changing demands for entertainment? How can museums be all things to all people? In the span of six decades, broadly speaking, museums have shifted from indifference to visitors to dreaming up ways to lure a broader base. And, once again, how do they pay for it all?

Illustration in green of silhouetted people formed into a dollar sign.

Where Does the Money Come From?

How are art museums funded? The short answer is that wealthy people pay for them. Casual observers might think they make their living off admissions and exhibition fees and glasses of mediocre Chardonnay in the café. But that’s income that Dean Sobel, former director of the Clyfford Still Museum and the Aspen Art Museum, called “bus trips and bake sales” money. The real action is with patrons who write big annual contribution checks or fund museum endowments.

There are four key areas of revenue—earned revenue, endowment income, contributions and fundraising, and government support—on which museums draw for their budget. Each one is a unique cocktail: Some mix equal parts, like a good negroni, while others are more singular, like a classic martini. Let’s look at the ingredients.

In addition to the “bus trips and bake sales” money museums earn from people coming through the doors, earned revenue includes things like income from special events and museum rentals, parking fees, royalties, gift shop splurges, loans to other museums, and speaking honoraria. It is particularly appealing to directors because they control how it is spent. Before the pandemic, many consultants encouraged museums to find new ways of generating this type of income, whether that be curator-led trips or digital programming. “It’s the most valuable money you can find,” said Daniel Payne, managing principal at AEA Consulting, who has advised such clients as the Pérez Art Museum Miami and the Dallas Museum of Art.

But this money doesn’t come close to covering the costs of operating museums or running programs. Museums typically earn less than 10 percent of their annual budget from admissions unless they are in mega markets like New York City, where tourism drives ticket sales. The Guggenheim, for example, relies on admissions for more than one-third of its budget, which leaves it particularly vulnerable when the crowds can’t visit.

“One of the devastating things about Covid is that institutions that pivoted to increase income based on tourism and admissions are hurt at a greater level because earned income has basically disappeared,” said Lial Jones, vice president and secretary of the Association of Art Museum Directors and director of the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento.

Despite that, Payne still recommends that clients focus on earned revenue—just more innovative sources than gate fees. “The challenge post-Covid is not to learn the wrong lesson even though earned revenue went to zero,” he said.

“Quality is fundamentally inclusive. It’s the most egalitarian thing there is.”
– Adam Levine, director, Toledo Museum of Art

The endowment is the nest egg that museums live off—if they’re lucky enough to have one. It is a collection of significant contributions that have been gifted, or endowed, to a museum, and are typically held in the form of securities and other investments. The money is designated to keep museums in business for the next 100 years, not necessarily to be raided for the crisis of any given moment. “Building endowment is slow and arduous,” said Baltimore Museum of Art director Christopher Bedford, who has helped grow the institution’s pot by nearly 40 percent since he started in 2016. Still, he added, “it can sometimes feel you are raising millions and aren’t seeing dividends.”

The generally accepted practice is for museums to draw no more than 5 percent annually from these investments so that, ideally, they live off the interest while the principal continues to grow. Beyond that, directors don’t have significant control over endowment funds because donors frequently earmark, or restrict, them for things like art purchases, collection care, or specific curatorial positions. That can leave a museum looking rich while struggling to make ends meet.

Exterior view of the Guggenheim Museum in New York during the day.
The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum relies on admissions for more than one-third of its budget. Photo: Tupungato/

The Guggenheim, for example, has an $85 million endowment compared to the Met’s $3.3 billion or even Toledo’s $176 million purse. That means director Richard Armstrong has less to draw on and forces him to seek other streams, like earned revenue. “The museum’s endowment only provides about 5 percent of our annual operating budget, whereas some of our peers see upward of 20 percent plus,” he said. “The growth of our endowment is a continued area of focus for the museum.”

And, of course, endowments grow—or fall—with the stock market. Since the pandemic, the key measure, the Dow Jones Industrial Average, hit record highs, swelling endowments even as earned revenue disappeared. Conversely, during the 2008 financial crisis, markets dragged down endowments even as earned revenue stayed steady. But overall, “the beauty of the endowment is that it’s predictable,” Sobel said.

Contributions and fundraising denotes money that comes in any amount, from small (annual museum memberships) to large (corporate gifts and donations from philanthropic foundations). Unlike endowments, this funding is typically unrestricted and can be used as needed. Museums with reserves of this unencumbered money have more flexibility in a downturn, so they spend a substantial part of their fundraising budget courting this largesse. Contributions raised at lavish annual galas, in particular, can be significant for some museums. “When I was at the Aspen Art Museum, that one night could fund one-third of our whole revenue stream,” Sobel said.

Having access to a wealthy community—in particular wealthy board members—is critical in this category. They make big annual donations and can be tapped in times of economic distress. Brian Ferriso, director of the Portland Art Museum in Oregon, reached out to his board this summer as he faced furloughing or laying off more than 80 percent of his staff. One board member wrote a $400,000 check—enough to cover two weeks of payroll. Meanwhile, the Metropolitan Museum of Art recently raised $25 million in new giving to support an emergency fund.

Not every museum can launch a fundraising campaign so quickly, however. The donors available to a museum depends to a good degree on dominant local industries and fortunes, which can be out of sync with audiences that are becoming more sensitive to the sources of museum funding. There is less appetite for money derived from certain industries, such as oil and gas—and pharmaceuticals, as members of the Sackler family’s failed reputations demonstrates. “There’s been a real purity test put in place about funding,” said Szántó, the consultant.

As for government grants, even though government funding of American museums is paltry compared to European counterparts, there is some public support. In total, government funding accounts for about 15 percent of art museums’ annual budgets, according to the Association of Art Museum Directors.

The primary conduits for federal support are the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. President Trump initially struck down any funding for the two endowments in the 2020 budget, but in the end, Congress approved $162.2 million for each. The federal stimulus bill known as the CARES Act also made available another $300 million in pandemic support.

Most public support happens at the state and local level, but it varies widely by community. The art museum in Toledo, for example, receives no government funding. An hour away, voters in metro Detroit recently renewed a property tax that brings in approximately $26 million a year for the Detroit Institute of Arts—or nearly half its annual budget.

Exterior view of the Indianapolis Museum of Art building during the day.
Over the past few years, Newfields (formerly the Indianapolis Museum of Art) has dropped reliance on its endowment to 60 percent from 75 percent. Photo: AP Photo/AJ Mast.

And Where Does It Go?

You can sum up the expense side of a museum’s balance sheet in two items: staff and collection care.

On average, salaries and benefits account for between one-third and one-half of most art museums’ annual expenses. Before Covid-19 spurred layoffs, the Met spent an average of $200 million a year on staff costs, or about two-thirds of its annual operating revenue of approximately $300 million. The much smaller Toledo museum spends an average of $9 million a year on staff—half director Levine’s budget.

With what’s left, museums have to pay for everything else—including the ever-increasing costs (building maintenance, insurance, utilities, etc.) of warehousing ever-expanding collections. Charles Venable put a precise price tag on that bill: $5.6 million per year to store and maintain the 55,000-object collection at Newfields: A Place for Nature & the Arts, formerly the Indianapolis Museum of Art. (In February, after this story went to press for ARTnews’s print edition, Venable resigned from his post at Newfields in the wake of controversy over an online job posting seeking a candidate who could maintain the museum’s “traditional, core, white art audience.”)

When he learned in 2018 that the museum needed to double its storage space at a cost of $12 million, Venable refused. Instead, he asked his team to put a letter grade, A through D, on each collection item and consider items to sell or transfer to other museums. In 2020 alone, Newfields deaccessioned 2,400 objects, from small items, such as a facing for a woman’s coat and a set of Italian champagne glasses, to Henri Matisse’s Jeune fille assise, robe jaune, which sold at auction in October for nearly $1.1 million.

“Our goal is to have fewer things and finer things,” Venable said. “We don’t want to stockpile.”

Directors everywhere are sleuthing out budget cuts. But they are hard to find because most costs are fixed—meaning they don’t go away, even during a global shutdown. Some of the finer points of Newfields’s maintenance may be deferred, but not the insurance bill. (Price tag: $400,000 per year.) And the museum’s 152 acres of gardens and grounds must be kept in shape for outdoor events that generate much-needed earned revenue. Travel, advertising, and legal budgets can be trimmed, for example, but the cuts don’t add up meaningfully compared to the cost of salaries and collection care.

“You can’t reduce the costs of a major facility—especially ones that are taking care of great works of human culture—even if your income drops to zero overnight,” said E. Andrew Taylor, professor of arts management at American University in Washington, D.C.

“It’s right for museums to be free because you radically democratize access to elite culture. That’s a linchpin to what we’re doing.”
– Christopher Bedford, director, Baltimore Museum of Art

That makes employees a target for cost cutting during downturns. Many curator positions are endowed, meaning the funds to pay that salary exist in perpetuity, so higher-level staff are often protected. Meanwhile, in a public health crisis that closes museums, some of the first staff to be cut are those on the frontlines, with lower wages and security. If the museums are closed for an extended period, security guards and visitor services, for example, no longer have jobs to do.

In Baltimore, director Bedford is adamant that it won’t come to that. “I will cancel an exhibit before [I] fire a person,” he told me in November. “I don’t think we can have the pronounced mission statement that we do and not apply those principles to protecting those who are our family.”

So far, he has been true to his word. But his growing endowment, plus strong fundraising, contributions, and government support, make it easier. Others aren’t as lucky: more than half of museums have laid off staff since March, according to the American Alliance of Museums.

The Portland Art Museum is one of those institutions that had to make hard choices. Because the museum is nearly 40 percent dependent on earned revenue—mostly from a film center, theater, and facility rental—director Ferriso had significant layoffs. But he, too, wanted to think about the museum’s principles and family, even in hard times: “We looked at our layoffs through an equity lens and we made sure that we were retaining people of color,” he said.

Infographic showing the four primary sources of revenue for museums: earned revenue; contributed income; endowments, investments & trusts; and government funding.
Figures sourced from the ARTnews Museum Survey

Getting the Right Mix

To control their future, museum directors must control their revenue mix—and they are making very different choices based on their location, assets, history, and mission.

“So much of what we do is hyper-local,” said Rand Suffolk, director of the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. “The response is going to be very diverse, because there is so much about our organizations that is unique to us or the communities we serve.”

And those differences go back, in some cases, to museums’ founding. The High was started in 1905 and didn’t receive its first major donation until 1949. In a city still developing at the time, the High didn’t have the advantage of deep-pocketed industry barons clamoring for a place to show off their wealth. As a result, it doesn’t have the same history of early endowments as other museums. What it does have is access to modern wealth in the form of corporate headquarters. Atlanta is home to 15 firms on the Fortune 500 list in 2020, including Home Depot, the Coca-Cola Co., and Delta Airlines.

“Atlanta never had a Golden Age,” Suffolk said. “We’re not Toledo or Cleveland or Buffalo that had this Golden Age of industrialization. You’ll remember, Atlanta was burned down a couple of times. Those things are cumulative. That’s why you’ll see those vast disparities.”

Infographic with the 'How much are endowments restricted?' showing 61% permanently, 20% temporarily, and 19% unrestricted.
Figures sourced from the ARTnews Museum Survey

Indeed, the Cleveland Museum of Art is in one of the country’s smaller markets, but it boasts one of the largest endowments, nearly $800 million. By comparison, the High’s endowment averages $132 million. That means Suffolk can draw only about $6 million a year for support compared to Cleveland’s potential $40 million.

With all that in mind, Suffolk prioritizes an evenly balanced revenue mix to cover his nearly $20 million a year in expenses. He pulls 25 percent each from the endowment, earned revenue, contributed income, and membership dues. “I regret to inform you I am completely average,” he said, with a laugh.

Suffolk has worked hard to get there. When he started at the High in 2015, the museum was more dependent on gate fees and other earned revenue. It was reliant on big blockbuster shows, such as “Dream Cars: Innovative Design, Visionary Ideas,” in 2014, that drive admissions and corporate sponsorships. But that model is “a little bit like heroin,” Suffolk said. “You get in this vicious cycle chasing one three-month brand after another.”

So he moved toward capping costs and building the endowment and contributions. It has paid off in this crisis: Having that more balanced mix not so dependent on admissions allowed Suffolk to contain layoffs to five members of the education team even as corporate giving and memberships have declined, and the annual wine-auction fundraiser, which went virtual this year, made just half what was expected.

That doesn’t make it the perfect business model, just the one that is working for the High in Atlanta at this moment.

“You don’t need to replicate the same model in every place,” Szántó said. “If you are going to be more community focused, then you are going to be more specific to your location and situation. We will see this on a global basis as well. You don’t have to transplant a German-style shiny glass palace museum to West Africa. You can do something quite different.”

In Indianapolis, Venable was doing just that by betting on growing earned revenue, not just endowments, and giving visitors experiences like harvest festivals and beer gardens, not just exhibits. When we spoke in November, he saw a revenue mix of 50 percent from endowment and 50 percent from earned and contributed income as the way forward for one of the country’s largest encyclopedic art museums—at 660,000 square feet plus 150 acres of grounds—in one of the smaller metropolitan areas, with just 2 million people.

“We’ve taken the strategy that it’s great to build endowments, but you become trapped when that money gets scarce,” Venable said.

He also remembered the pain of relying heavily on an endowment. When he arrived at the museum in 2012, he had to retrench a museum that was still reeling from the financial crisis. The previous director made deep staff cuts, but Venable realized it wasn’t enough. He made the hard choice to lay off another two dozen people. 

Infographic showing top five museums that received significant public support (as a percent of their operating budget: National Gallery (78%), Detroit Institute of Arts (43%), Denver Art Museum (35%), Baltimore Museum of Art (26%), and LACMA (21%).
Figures sourced from the ARTnews Museum Survey

During his tenure, Venable studied changing consumer preferences and crunched the numbers on running the museum. He decided the way forward was to bring entertainment, not just capital A art, to the museum grounds. Attendance had held steady for years at about 350,000, and Venable needed a way to move that needle toward his goal of 600,000 and make the museum relevant to more Hoosiers’ lives. He considered big blockbuster shows, like a Van Gogh extravaganza, but he said those exhibits can cost upward of $3 million to host. By comparison, adding a culinary director, making the sculpture garden a selfie-magnet, and adding community events was significantly cheaper—and brought in more money.

“To me, as a sector, we’re going to have to become much more flexible and willing to meet individuals where they are if we want robust institutions 20 years from now,” Venable said. “We’ve been worried about water bottles in the museum for years and now we’re going to allow cocktails.”

There has been significant criticism of his path, and critics have called him all but a modern-day P. T. Barnum. They say his harvest festivals and beer gardens and new 30,000-square-foot digital art space, LUME, dumbed down the institution.

But from where he sat, Venable said he felt vindicated for how he dropped reliance on the endowment to 60 percent from 75 percent while also cutting debt obligations by almost half and weathering the pandemic without laying off staff. His budget was balanced, thanks to an endowment once again healthy, and nearly $3 million in earned revenue this year, mostly from outdoor attractions such as the annual harvest festival and Winterlights exhibit on the grounds.

“I must admit that now that people want to be outdoors, having our large gardens has been useful during Covid,” Venable said when we spoke.

He also implemented what is known inside the museum as the Ring of Defense: a plan of action in case of financial crisis. The board of directors and senior staff preapproved the document long before Covid hit, and it gave them a road map for action from cutting travel and programs to pinpointing when things are so dire they’d cut staff, and in what order. Venable credited his preparedness planning to the Corning Museum of Glass, which introduced him to the Ring of Defense idea when he was a board member there, and to his small-business-owner father. He remembered sitting at the dinner table listening as the family discussed sales and customers and budgets.

“I always joke that the things they didn’t teach me in an 800-level art history class are legendary,” Venable said. “But all those family lessons are very applicable to art museums. It’s a different product, but it’s still people needing to be motivated to embrace your brand and what you want to give them.

Sequined Vodou flags hang in the main hall of the New Orleans Museum of Art in 2018as part of the exhibition 'Bondye: Between and Beyond.'
The New Orleans Museum of Art rebuilt its website in one day to focus on newly created virtual tours, curator talks, and more. AP Photo/Janet McConnaughey

Look to the Future

As art museums look to the future, some will focus on building their endowments and reducing their dependency on admissions to ensure stability. Others, perhaps with stronger endowments, may look to new earned income opportunities. More still are considering what the future of memberships might look like as younger audiences resist joining. Others are looking at how they most want to engage their communities as a way forward. Their ideas—from bringing entertainment to hallowed halls to deaccessioning artwork to diversify collections—might have seemed fringe in another era.

“One interesting legacy of the pandemic is that we may see some new discussions around what can be done to sustain the museum,” said Szántó.

For most museums, one legacy of the pandemic will be a growing focus on digital experiences. Many institutions already had plans in the works, but Covid-19 accelerated the rollout. The New Orleans Museum of Art, for example, rebuilt its website in one day to focus on newly created virtual tours, curator talks, and more. In April, it generated 7,000 hours of viewing on its YouTube channel—and it wants to keep growing those numbers as a way to reach wider audiences.

Director Susan Taylor, like others, would like the digital offerings to eventually produce new income to offset losses in fundraising and other areas. Museum directors are dreaming up big ideas—ticketed virtual tours through the collection, private Zoom meetings with a curator, livestreamed artwork creation—but for now, most are keeping their offerings free as a way to remind museumgoers that their beloved institutions are still there.

“I think this experience made us more nimble and more responsive,” Taylor said. “We’ve been able to move into other realms of delivery, and that will only become more important. I think what’s interesting is that the museum is meant to be … a center of cultural activity, a place where people come and have a number of different experiences.”

Another potential upside to the many downsides of the pandemic is that limited budgets and digital tools may mean greater access to what has been secreted away in storage. Instead of turning to large traveling exhibits that come with hefty price tags to host, directors may increasingly look to their collections for online and in-person exhibits.

“We may finally see more of what’s in the basement,” Sobel said. “It could be a lot of fun to bring [art] out of storage and recontextualize it. Only good could come from making our collections better known.”

But even as there is a search for silver linings, 2021 still looms large for most directors. This year was devastating in so many ways, but there was public support for the nation’s cultural institutions. Movements like #SaveOurMuseums gained traction to lobby Congress for more support. Overall fundraising didn’t dry up as patrons lined up to keep the lights on. And outdoor events flourished.

But if the pandemic drags on deep into 2021, that may leave everyone exhausted and overwhelmed. And as more communities went back into lockdown at the end of the year, forcing more closures, museums became even more vulnerable.

“The longer-term impacts will be processed more fully in 2021,” Taylor said. “In 2020 we had stimulus money. We had the goodwill of the community. 2021 will be a different kind of year. Our priorities are maintaining financial stability and making sure that we are keyed up for 2022. Right now, we’re at a pause.”

Clarification March 5, 2021: A previous version of this article stated that “There is less appetite for money derived from certain industries, such as oil and gas—and pharmaceuticals, as the Sackler family’s failed reputation demonstrates.” This has been clarified to reflect the fact that it is “members of the Sackler family” that are being referred to.

Additional reporting by Rebecca Kaebnick and Allia McDowell.

A version of this article appears in the February/March 2021 issue of ARTnews, under the title “Hanging in the Balance.”