Art Market

How Three Very Different Museums Are Dealing with the COVID-19 Crisis

Claire Voon
Apr 20, 2020 9:56PM

A view of The Metropolitan Museum of Art as it remains temporarily closed during the coronavirus pandemic. Photo by Rob Kim/Getty Image.

As the coronavirus pandemic stretches on, art museums across the United States are scrambling to respond to the rapidly changing situation. Institutions of all sizes confront uncertain futures, with no clear date for when the crisis might subside. Forced to shut their doors, they are weighing difficult decisions about staffing and programming while maintaining a mission to serve their communities with scant revenue.

While museums are all grappling with the same set of challenges, their abilities to respond can be vastly different. The prognosis for smaller museums seems especially dire. According to estimates by the American Alliance of Museums, museums nationwide are collectively losing at least $33 million daily due to COVID-19-related closures. As many as 30%—mostly those in small and rural communities—will not reopen without emergency financial aid. Although the CARES Act, passed last month, has allocated $200 million in relief to cultural organizations, the package will still leave many cultural institutions struggling to survive.

Some have referred to COVID-19 as an “equalizer.” But this pandemic only exposes and amplifies existing inequalities in America, including the disparity of resources in the world of museums—which are themselves structures of hierarchy.

“Support is coming immediately, and strongly”

Exterior view of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.


When, in March, the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced that it faced an expected shortfall of at least $100 million, it made unpleasantly clear the disastrous effect of the pandemic on the arts. As the largest art museum in the U.S., the Met has served as a model during this health crisis for countless cultural institutions. But hardly any are in the same financial position as the New York museum, which has a healthy endowment, well-heeled board members, and—until the shutdown—had enjoyed a surge in revenue since it began charging admission for out-of-state visitors.

Even with an estimated deficit of $3 million to $4 million this year before the virus outbreak, the Met is in better shape to weather the unpredictable storm than most museums. It has an operating budget of more than $320 million and a $3.6 billion endowment, and while salaries cost about $16 million a month, the Met has, so far, dodged the painful act of laying off or furloughing any employees. The museum has also committed to paying its 2,200-strong staff until May 2nd, and has yet to implement any pay cuts—its highest paid executive, president and CEO Daniel Weiss, makes upwards of $950,000.

To help cover costs, the Met has created an emergency fund of about $50 million—“spinoff funds,” as Met director Max Hollein put it. These are unrestricted funds that would typically be used for acquisitions, programming, and educational initiatives. “We felt that these would not be a priority for us right now, and maybe not in the imminent future,” Hollein said. “These we can reallocate without the institution suffering or our audience feeling that something is significantly missing.” He added that help has also arrived from private benefactors. “Our trustees are clearly stepping up and wanting to make sure that they’re helping the institution. That support is coming immediately, and strongly.”

Portrait of Max Hollein by Eileen Travell. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The Met is currently basing decisions on the expectation that it will open in early July. But whether or not that scenario holds, it is anticipating returning to a very different landscape. Hollein is predicting a “significantly reduced attendance for the next 18 months at least,” with an increased ratio of local to international visitors (last year, 28% of the museum’s visitors came from abroad). The museum will also have to be less ambitious: While some exhibitions might be postponed, others may not be physically shown and instead exist primarily in published form, from printed materials to digital resources. Many—including the museum’s 150th anniversary blockbuster, “Making the Met, 1870–2020”—will have reduced programming.

As the Met evaluates the impact of the pandemic on its own operations, it is also using its stature to advocate for less powerful institutions. In late March, it launched a campaign calling on Congress to provide $4 billion in aid for nonprofit cultural organizations. While the final relief package provided just 0.05% of that sum, the campaign “wasn’t in vain because it raised awareness,” Hollein said. “We need and want to lobby for support for our arts communities. Some are way more threatened than the Met. We want to be as helpful as possible and will certainly see what opportunities arise.”

“We're being appropriately cautious and appropriately ambitious”

Exterior view of Cleveland Museum of Art. Photo by Howard Agriesti. Courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art.

On March 14th, the Cleveland Museum of Art was scheduled to open an exhibition of rarely seen Latin American drawings. Instead, it closed to the public, following the Ohio governor’s decision to close schools. A skeleton crew now maintains its campus as senior leadership redrafts schedules and budgets, with all programming currently canceled through June 30th.

The museum, which had an operating budget of $57.1 million for the fiscal year 2018–19, is anticipating a shortfall in excess of $5 million by the end of June, when its fiscal year concludes. The financial impact has led to payroll reductions: The museum has furloughed all part-time staff, who make up about 30% of its roughly 470 employees, as well as several unionized staff members. All full-time nonunion staff have also taken salary reductions representing five fewer hours of work per week.

“We felt we really had to take some action to mitigate the financial impact,” said director and president William Griswold. “We covered everyone’s compensation for the first two weeks of closure, but that would not have been tenable for a prolonged period. We’re still looking at a significant reduction in revenues.” While the museum has received “a couple of really wonderful gifts, including unsolicited gifts” from donors, Griswold said he remains “cautiously optimistic” about relying on private benefactors. “We have a wonderful, loyal audience, but everybody is feeling significantly poorer,” he said. “And indeed, on paper, everybody is a little bit poorer.”

Portrait of William Griswold by Rob Muller.Courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Roberto Matta, Castronautes, 1965. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of The Cleveland Museum of Art.

The Cleveland Museum of Art offers free general admission, but it earns revenue from parking, retail, and special events and exhibitions. One notable source would have been its biggest exhibition of the year, a display of Pablo Picasso’s works on paper. Scheduled to open in May, the ticketed show will likely be postponed until the fall. “We are in the process of recreating our exhibition schedule for the next several years, starting almost from scratch, postponing some projects for a few months and others for a few years,” Griswold said.

The Cleveland Museum of Art does not currently have plans to take an exceptional draw from its endowment, valued at $826 million before the pandemic. Griswold is hopeful that “significant relief” will come from the CARES Act; the museum is also exploring the option of applying for a loan through the new Paycheck Protection Program, which would help cover payroll expenses.

Griswold has also established a task force to develop protocols for when the museum does eventually reopen. He expects to see attendance drop to 30% of its usual figure, with visitorship not returning to typical levels until one year after the reopening. Even with these reduced numbers, he foresees measures like staggered shifts, smaller gallery capacities, and timed ticketing. Exhibition programming, which often involves loans from international partners, will likely be more focused on immediate resources. That means more exhibitions that engage with the permanent collection, Griswold said, especially art that is ordinarily in storage. “I think that’s going to be exciting in particular for our local audience,” he said. “This will be a year when we will refocus on our immediate neighbors who are reeling from this catastrophe. And we can play a big role.”

He added, “I think we’re being appropriately cautious and, at the same time, appropriately ambitious for the kind of program that we’re going to be able to deliver.”

“I am planning five different fiscal scenarios”

Martin Creed, Work No. 790: EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT, 2007, on the exterior of the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. Courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit.

Since Michigan’s governor announced a stay-home order on March 23rd, Elysia Borowy-Reeder has been working without pause. The executive director and chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD) faces a balancing act of checking in on the shuttered museum, running an emergency fundraiser, and filling out paperwork for federal aid.

These days, Borowy-Reeder is just one of five employees helping to run the small but mighty institution. Like many other museums, MOCAD has been forced to reduce its staff, but it has been hit particularly hard, laying off 17 of its 22 full-time employees. Borowy-Reeder is now waiting to receive a loan from the Paycheck Protection Program so she can rehire all of them. One of the first nonprofits in Michigan to secure this loan, MOCAD is now applying for relief from the National Endowment for the Arts to prepare for an uncertain future. Last month, it also launched an initiative to raise funds by selling works by Detroit-based artists, with half of sale profits going back to the contributing artists.

“I am planning five different fiscal scenarios, just for 2020,” Borowy-Reeder said. “One if we opened in July, another if we open in August, another September, and then if we have social distancing in place for 18 months, and the final scenario is if the virus comes back in the fall. And each has different stress tests.”

Portrait of Elysia Borowy-Reeder. Courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit.

MOCAD, which has an operating budget of $1.8 million and an endowment of about $10,000—too small to dip into, its director says—is facing a shortfall of at least $500,000 through October. That number only represents the estimated revenue lost from canceled spring and summer fundraisers and the museum’s major fall gala, which typically raises between 22% and 28% of the overall budget. The museum, which offers all visitors free admission, relies heavily on grants.

Last Thursday, the institution would have reopened its galleries after weeks of installing four spring exhibitions, including what would have been the first solo museum shows of Conrad Egyir and The New Red Order. Now, with all of these on hold, curators are reshuffling calendars with the intention of opening spring shows in the fall and extending them into January. With social distancing measures likely to last for many more months and attendance likely to drop, exhibitions should have longer time spans, Borowy-Reeder said. She added that she is considering reducing the museum’s schedule. Rather than being open six days a week, it might be open for four, with a greater focus on engaging visitors during its evenings of extended hours.

“I need to readjust our measurement for success in 2020,” Bowory-Reeder said. “Our success isn’t going to come from funders through our door. We have to make our impact through getting back on our feet and having deeper community engagement.”

The road ahead

As with many other industries, museums will reopen in a slow and gradual wave, and within a very different environment. Larger institutions with corporate structures, larger reserves, and perhaps social media clout will likely be able to resurface with less difficulty. More vulnerable are small and medium-size museums, which are often also important gathering places for their surrounding communities.

Accompanying the many questions about how museums will operate as the pandemic subsides are conversations about how they are funded. A test of financial resilience, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to increased transparency about institutional finances, from salary discrepancies to the limitations of endowments (just last week, the Association of Art Museum Directors relaxed some of its sanctions that restrict the use of such funds in light of the pandemic). For many museums, this crisis might present an opportunity to rethink funding strategies and imagine more sustainable business models.

Claire Voon

Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified the source of the Metropolitan Museum’s emergency funds.