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Museums and galleries are preparing to address the conflicting challenges of attracting audiences back whilst having to postpone the most popular exhibitions until social distancing measures are lifted.

man and woman sitting on a bench looking at a painting in a gallery - view from behind the couple

Eri Pançi on Unsplash

The most pressing concern facing almost all museums and galleries is how they can reopen safely and attract audiences back, according to research commissioned by Art Fund.

Eight out of ten museum directors are worried about their ability to attract visitors back when they reopen and over half are predicting financial problems that will threaten the viability of their organisations. Other major concerns include the wellbeing of staff, the cancellation or postponement of partnerships, and sustaining volunteer support.

Concerns, challenges and priorities

The research was conducted among more than 400 museum directors and other museum professionals by cultural consultants Wafer Hadley shortly after the lockdown. They found that senior professionals are looking ahead to a radically changed environment and anticipating future challenges, but also opportunities.

A key priority now is to make decisions about the future of their collections and exhibition programming while encouraging visitors to return and managing the practical implications of social distancing.

Very popular exhibitions will be postponed until social distancing measures are lifted, and this will have a knock-on effect on international tours, especially for national museums. There are likely to be more collections-based shows and fewer bought-in exhibitions and blockbusters over the next few years.

Museums and galleries are revising and remodelling business plans to address financial challenges and an unknown timescale for the changes in their current situation.

Large deficits and cash flow issues are anticipated, and independent museums and galleries – especially those reliant on ticket income and summer visitors – are likely to be hardest hit in the short term. The expectation is that both philanthropy and sponsorship will decrease, potentially affecting acquisition budgets, and those with ongoing capital projects may struggle to meet fundraising targets.   

Staff worries

Supporting the workforce is also recognised as a key priority.

Over 80% of independent and national museums had furloughed all or some staff, though only 5% of local authority museums services had done this. Many staff are concerned about the future of their organisations and their own roles.

Almost half of those still working had seen their jobs change, many covering the work of furloughed colleagues. Although many feel they are getting the advice and support they need, there are many examples of “staff feeling abandoned by management and trustees”.

A digital future

Both now and in the longer term, museums and galleries see the importance of acquiring the digital skills and infrastructure they need to open up collections and reach audiences online.

The vast majority (86%) have increased their online presence during the lockdown, but while those that had already invested in digital before the crisis were able to rise to this challenge, others struggled. A quarter would have liked to hire staff or freelancers to support their digital work, but didn’t have the budget to do so; and 22% have redeployed exiting staff, though some feel ill-equipped for the role.

Following the “rush to get everything online”, some are now recognising the market to be overcrowded and looking for a more strategic approach.

Art Fund response

Art Fund is preparing to adapt its own charitable programme to give museums and galleries the type of support they need to help them emerge from the crisis. These measures will be announced in June.

Art Fund’s director of programme and policy Sara Philip said: “The challenge faced by the museum sector cannot be overstated. We hope that the findings from our research will inform and support the work of many museum and arts sector organisations, agencies and funders…

“We are grateful to Art Fund’s supporters: we are an independent charity and it is only through public generosity that we are able to listen and respond to the sector effectively. We now all need to come together to help museums adapt to meet the challenges they face.”

Liz Hill