“Save our museum!” Every day, my inbox fills up with new emails from museums asking for cash amid straitened circumstances. They’re asking for my donation at a time when they can’t offer guided tours, events with public speakers, or anything else in exchange. I’ve even received invitations to formal galas held entirely on Zoom, meaning that I’d be buying a ticket to my own dining room.
Museums are known for their hyperbolic fundraising, but this time they’re serious. In the U.S., museums are in dire straits. While they sometimes seem like the playgrounds of the elite, museums tend to run on tight margins and to rely on underpaid staff and unpaid interns for work. They don’t have much financial padding to make it through a pandemic—and some won’t.
Museums have sought to put more of their materials online, offering opportunities for visitors around the world to learn about their collections. Being able to attend talks and seminars hosted by the world’s museums and historical societies has been a surprising upside to Covid-19. Since these efforts aren’t exactly lucrative, however, many museums are resorting to more desperate measures, such as deaccessioning—selling off art pieces to cover costs. The practice is controversial: facing a budget crisis in 2017, the Berkshire Museum, in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, worked to sell 40 pieces of art to raise $50 million. The museum was shamed for its decision, condemned by the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), and sued by an activist group trying to block the sale, but it eventually won the case after spending months (and millions of dollars) defending the move. As Jeff Jacoby observed, recent events have vindicated the Berkshire, as leaders of other museums are doing the same thing to stay afloat. Even the AAMD has relaxed its stance.
But deaccessioning as a funding stopgap is possible only for venues that own the odd Renoir or Norman Rockwell. Museums with artifacts of lower market value, or whose value comes from their sites themselves—such as New York City’s Merchant’s House Museum, itself under threat from nearby construction—don’t have this option. The collections in historic-house museums are valuable for being in situ and generally don’t fetch much on the open market. Some can attract interest as antiques, but the proceeds from an eighteenth-century bureau are unlikely to fund any institution for long.
Countless museums are unable to survive on their own, inviting the question: which ones ought to be saved? With taxpayer funds involved, the challenge resembles that of historic buildings: we might value preservation, but we don’t want to pay for it. High prices, out-of-touch curators, and narrow exhibits don’t do museums hoping for public bailouts any favors. Yet beyond strictly financial concerns, a museum can be a great educational and cultural asset. And they are often themselves tourist attractions, making their home cities more attractive destinations.
We tend to think of longstanding cultural institutions as permanent, but we forget that museums close all the time. Any city has a tally of defunct museums. A partial list in New York includes the Sports Museum of America, which closed in 2009 after less than a year; the Morbid Anatomy Museum, which held on from 2014 to 2016; the Chelsea Art Museum, which closed in 2011; and the Museum of Biblical Art, which closed in 2015.
Such churn illustrates the desire of communities, and individuals, to create institutions that reflect their interests and to preserve what they want to preserve. These interests are often idiosyncratic; unusual and niche museums are an important part of the cultural landscape. But such quirky, smaller museums can struggle to survive, not only in big cities but also in smaller towns, where real estate is cheaper.
As the pandemic nears its end, the challenges for museums will continue. Many are beginning to reopen their doors but must limit entries among already-hesitant customers and still can’t cater to foreign tourists due to travel restrictions. Survival won’t be as simple as throwing open the doors and hosting a “welcome back” cocktail party. Museums will need to fight for a smaller number of visitors (at least initially) and find innovative ways to make the best use of their collections.
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