Part of The Museums Issue of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.
America’s museums are at a crossroads.
This summer, outrage swirled and controversies piled up around postponing exhibitions for political reasons; cultivating diverse and inclusive collections; deaccessioning artifacts and treasures; and layoffs of people of color. All the while, museums sat shuttered, their futures imperiled by economic struggles brought on by a pandemic.
Just over a decade earlier, the 2008 financial crisis had revealed the vulnerabilities of museum revenue — the memberships, admissions, store and restaurant profits, philanthropic contributions, even state and local support — as important donors cut back on giving and entertainment spending dried up.
Despite the lessons learned during that Great Recession, the arrival of Covid-19 in 2020 confirmed how few financial reserves these institutions had to fall back on — especially in a situation that forced them to close for months, said Elizabeth Merritt, founding director of the American Alliance of Museums’ Center for the Future of Museums. “They didn’t have a very resilient financial model or deep pockets that could carry them through a crisis like this.”
As a result, the American Alliance for Museums found in a recent survey of 750 museum directors that a third of museums are at significant risk of closure by next year, or face uncertain futures.
“We’ve spoken to very few museums that had such significant financial reserves that they were simply going to be able to exist on that throughout the projected period of the pandemic,” Merritt said.
Even for museums that have reopened — including storied institutions such as the Met and the MoMA — the eeriness of empty galleries and exhibitions suggests a grim shift in museumgoers’ sense of safety in public spaces. And, Merritt confirms, “There is fear on the part of individual museums that they won’t be able to hold out long enough for people to come back.”
The combined effect of closing their doors and facing immense financial hardship amid a national conversation around race and social justice — a conversation that the museums themselves must reckon with — has led to a catalytic moment. Even the nation’s oldest and wealthiest museums collectively have had to lay off thousands of staff members. Many were people of color, renewing years of critiques that museums have woeful records around diversity, with regard to curatorial staff and leadership, what is on the walls and who comes through the doors.
As the end of this tumultuous year approaches, museums find themselves at a point in which two extreme pressures have coalesced: the pressure to survive, and the pressure to do it while speaking to the cultural realities of this moment.
Vox spoke to four of the nation’s leading museum directors, administrators, and curators about the calls to diversify museums and the financial crises they face. They acknowledged the failings of the field, but overwhelmingly offered lessons of hope in museums’ ability to adapt and survive.
The following interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
Lonnie Bunch III, secretary, Smithsonian Institution
As told to Constance Grady
Lonnie Bunch III is secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, which spans 19 federally funded museums in several cities. He’s also the founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC. All Smithsonian museums as well as the National Zoo closed to the public on March 14 due to Covid-19; they began a phased reopening on July 24, and then shuttered again in November, as Covid cases spiked to new highs. In 2019, 22 million people visited the Smithsonian’s museums and zoo, including more than 4.2 million guests at the Museum of Natural History alone.
When we closed and then decided to reopen, there were two key questions. One, how do you social distance in a museum? Especially in a place like the Smithsonian, where you get such huge crowds. [Editor’s note: Days after this interview was published on Vox in November, Bunch closed the Smithsonian museums once again amid greatly spiking Covid-19 rates. “The prudent thing is to protect our staff and visitors,” Bunch told the Washington Post.]
And then two, museums by their very nature do something special. They create informal communities around an artifact or an exhibition, where people begin to engage with each other and are changed by that conversation.
So the question was, how do you do that now?
Because of my experience at the African American museum, I was able to pivot quickly to giving people passes. That would allow us to limit the number of people who could come in and therefore social distance. I’ve tried to stay around 30 percent of what we traditionally have in order to make sure we can keep people safe.
The audiences are different. They’ve changed. They’re scared. So we need to make sure we understand what their needs are.
Blockbuster shows are not viable now, that’s for sure. And I think it’s going to be several years before people are really comfortable with the various vaccines we’ll have.
At first I thought people wouldn’t want to go to big shows ever again. But I’ve noticed now that people desperately want that communication and contact. So I think you will see a return. But I think the crowd will be smaller because they’re still going to be worried about infections.
We’ve also learned that by making the crowd smaller, we really are enriching the visitor experience. At the Smithsonian, you tend to have to elbow your way around to see something. But now, while it means that fewer people will see an exhibit — although we can really replicate a lot of that virtually — the in-person visitor experience will be even better.
Many museums are going to have to reimagine their business model. At the Smithsonian, I’ve had to create multiplatform e-commerce that will allow us to ultimately return to being a profitable entity. Museums are going to have to ask themselves how to do that.
They’re also going to have to do a much better job of making the case for why they exist so their donors, even in a tight financial time, feel the need to continue to support the work that they do. Just recognize that it doesn’t hurt to reimagine who you are, both in terms of who you serve and in terms of how you get your revenue.
But the goal will be never to leave people behind. Free days are still going to be extremely valuable, because the goal here is still the same, despite the challenges we face. The best goal of a museum is to define reality and give hope.
So we’ll always want to do that. We’ll just have to do it with smaller crowds. Different crowds. Maybe masked crowds.
As a historian, museums have been through this before. Maybe not this combination of things, but they’ve been through these tight times before.
My goal has always been to protect the safety of the staff. That meant trying to keep people employed as long as possible. Even though our retail shops were closed for seven months or six months, I kept people on for five of those months.
We have strong federal support that allows us to keep people on. But the reality is that’s going to get tight over the next couple of years. I had to think about whether there were moments of consolidation that can make us move better.
We had different kinds of staffers — undersecretary for administration, undersecretary for museum finance — and they all had their own administrative units. So you don’t need to have 10 people who will handle the budget, but maybe three.
Museums need to recognize that it’s not enough to be a place of beauty. We have to be a place of insight. We’ve got to be a place that gives people tools to help them grapple with the challenges of today, whether it’s helping people grapple with race, or a better understanding of the power of science.
The biggest challenge is making sure museums reflect America. Museums say they believe in that. I do not believe all museums have the will to make the changes they need to make.
It’s the will.
The notion that you can’t find [people of color to work on museum staffs] is just ridiculous. I was able to find a very diverse staff of Latino, white, African American people. It meant work. It was not easy. But the reality is that it’s about not settling for the easy answer.
Museums need to know that’s what they have to do. That’s the job. Just like fundraising — dealing with controversial stuff.
The notion that you’re not going to have controversy is wrong. Think carefully about the decisions you make. Whether it’s the notion of postponing a show or whether it’s this idea of selling collections, you want to make sure that anything you do, you use people who you trust. Get help as you grapple with these issues, because nobody has a monopoly on wisdom.
The other challenge is that museums cannot become community centers. But they ought to be at the center of their communities.
One of the best museums in the country is the Newark Museum in New Jersey. They pivoted from being a place that only served a small populace to saying, “We are part of this community, this city of Newark that has been beat up through riots.” And because of that, they have one of the most diverse audiences of any museum in the country. And they are considered essential, so they can get some city funds when they need it.
I’m always hopeful for the future because the work we do is important. It is about serving the public and giving them the tools they need to live their lives. We do that. We will continue to get the support we need. We will get the resources we need.
And most importantly, we will help the country be made better.
Joanne Heyler, founding director, the Broad Museum
As told to Victoria L. Valentine
Joanne Heyler is the founding director of the five-year-old Broad Museum in Los Angeles, which was built to showcase the private collection of philanthropists Eli and Edythe Broad and includes about 2,000 postwar and contemporary artworks by more than 200 artists. The free general admission museum remains temporarily closed.
Museums are gathering spaces. Any type of business or any type of nonprofit that is a gathering space is — for obvious pandemic-related reasons — facing an enormous challenge of reinvention or getting by with less of a capacity to fulfill that piece of your mission.
What I am seeing in cities that have allowed their museums to reopen — which is most of the major cities across the nation, except Los Angeles — is museums looking at their visitorship and seeing, of course, that there is drastically reduced tourism-related attendance.
You now are looking at months, if not years, where your audience is going to be local, just by virtue of circumstances we’re all working with, with the pandemic.
I’m looking at that as an opportunity. It’s a way to operate differently. About 50 percent of the Broad’s attendance, which had reached almost 1 million people in 2019, were visitors who are at least from out of state, and then about half of that group was from overseas or international. We’re looking at a new horizon. If you confront this situation creatively, it has the potential to make your institution better.
That puts aside the financial question, right? We are extremely fortunate to be on really solid footing, thanks to Eli and Edythe Broad, who have made sure of that. We’re a single-donor museum, and we for sure have some challenges in terms of our operating budget. There are pieces of income that are totally dried up because we’ve been closed for so many months. But we’re going to weather this crisis intact. They’re not life-threatening problems for the institution.
I’m taking a look at special exhibitions, which are often the biggest periodic, episodic pieces of a museum’s budget. They’ve become only more expensive to put on — the cost of insurance and travel and shipping. You look at that and you think, well, maybe it’s time to focus more on the collection for the foreseeable future.
We were doing a fifth-anniversary presentation, so we had already, more or less, been on that track anyway for 2020 and 2021, where we’re going to focus on the collection and not bring in special exhibitions for a little while. It wasn’t as dramatic a change as it might’ve been. But I’m not looking at any special exhibitions until probably 2022, at least not any exhibitions that are those major, so-called blockbuster shows. I think I have a lot of company in thinking that way at other museums as well.
Museums are facing a reckoning on many, many fronts. But particularly on the front of anti-racism, we are engaged internally with active and authentic and genuine conversations about how to be better as an anti-racist institution, and how to confront those pieces of the art world and the museum world that consciously and unconsciously work against those goals.
Museums need to develop some muscle memory around how to talk to communities. You have to know or learn the community that is going to be impacted by what you’re presenting. And then you’ve got to go talk to those communities. This is a lot of work. Then after you do all of that work, you are probably going to make a decision that’s not going to make everybody happy.
When we brought “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963-1983” to the Broad, we spent many, many months trying to do a great deal of outreach, sessions that talked about the show and what it means. “Soul of a Nation” taught us a lot because of all of that outreach, which we will continue into the future. We treated the Shirin Neshat show a little bit differently because of our experience with “Soul of a Nation.” Different community but similar approach: Talk to everybody. Not just the art people, not just the obvious people — try to reach out to absolutely everybody.
For two or three years now, we have been placing more deliberate emphasis on increasing the number of artworks in the collection by artists of color: Our acquisitions have been more than 50 percent works by artists of color. As a collection 50 years in the making, the overall proportions and numbers in the collection are not at 50 percent, but our acquisitions now demonstrate our intention to fulfill our goal of a more inclusive collection over time.
Museums also need to get creative in how they recruit. Museums who rely on search firms need to not accept a pool of candidates that’s not diverse. Curatorial is its own category, but certainly for many other aspects of work at museums, whether you are talking about marketing, visitor services, directors of operations, HR, etc. Until the pipeline that leads right into museums is truly healthy — and by healthy I mean inclusive and diverse, which it isn’t yet, to be blunt — you’ve got to look at other professions and other industries where parallel job titles and responsibilities are more diverse and go recruit in those places.
Our layoffs were in April and involved the part-time staff in visitor services. It was an incredibly difficult decision. When we do reopen, our ramp-up of visitor services will likely be extremely gradual.
Hard work has been done during this period. It’s going to result in a stronger museum when we reopen. But it’s not like we are going to flip a switch and everything is 2019 again. It’s going to be a long road of ongoing innovation and redefinition.
Nwaka Onwusa, vice president and chief curator, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame
As told to Victoria L. Valentine
After a decade as the curator at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles, Nwaka Onwusa joined the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2019 as director of curatorial affairs. The Cleveland museum closed temporarily in March and reopened in June; its visitorship today is a quarter of the more than 550,000 patrons it typically serves annually, even as city residents receive free admission. In September, Onwusa was promoted to vice president and chief curator.
One of the biggest challenges right now is the uncertainty. We’re in such flux in Cleveland. We’re on this borderline of level red [very high exposure and spread of Covid-19], and then we transitioned to level purple [extreme exposure].
Now it’s like, what is our schedule going to be? How do we plot exhibitions for the future? Do we even have the money to promise for these exhibitions? Are we even gonna stay open? What does that look like for our public, our patrons coming in?
Oh, my gosh, we are so much more progressive. We really huddled during the time of closure to brainstorm what processes will work. I mean, we walked through that big old museum and just plotted out what the path of our visitors is going to be. We want to make sure the interactions and the huddle spaces, the places where visitors will gather, are spaced out enough. We heavily use music and video in the museum. We went again and assessed length, the runtimes. We’ve closed our theaters, even.
There are lots of opportunities to innovate in the museum space. Honestly, we’re taking it day by day, being flexible. There’s no formula for this. That’s what this experience is teaching museums around the world.
Tourism runs this city in a lot of ways, especially the Rock Hall. To have that diminished — not that we don’t have visitation, but everyone is seeing a substantial decrease in numbers. How long will we be able to sustain this?
Unfortunately, we had to lay off staff a few months ago. The scope and our needs have changed.
We still have our pillar curators on staff. That really has been a blessing. I’m really grateful that we can still create and develop amazing experiences for our visitors virtually and physically, in person, too.
My vision for this department since I got to the museum was always about diversifying. Things can always be diversified even more, whether it’s women, people of color, whatever, wanting to make sure those narratives are told and that we’re not doing the same conventional stories.
I really would love to continue to redefine how our culture, how Americans and the world translate what rock ’n’ roll is and its impact on our lives. I want to make sure that the virtual platform is at a place and so efficient that a kid in India can tap in and be inspired.
I think the beauty of being a music museum is we have to evolve and react to music at the same time that it’s happening. We recently lost Eddie Van Halen. In a music museum, you do not dismiss that and talk about it next year. We have to pivot and talk about it right now.
I also wanted to celebrate the resilience of Black people’s struggle through racism, and through this systematic oppression that we’ve been experiencing. How long are we going to continue to suffer through this? How long as Black people, as a human race? And how does music speak to that? How is the Rock Hall speaking to that?
“It’s Been Said All Along: Voices of Rage, Hope, and Empowerment” definitely came from a place of passion. [Editor’s note: Onwusa curated the exhibition in response to nationwide incidents of police killings of Black people and the ensuing protests for racial equality. It opened in July.]
Being new at the Rock Hall, it was great to really see the space and understand there are actually nuggets of this message and this narrative that live throughout the museum.
“It’s Been Said All Along” was our first experience of taking an exhibit physically and manifesting the full thing virtually, and then continuing to build on that platform.
The artists highlighted in the exhibit eloquently celebrate and touch on notes of rage. It’s only a sampling, because there are so many voices who have spoken out about injustice through their music, through their actions, through being on the front lines. There are two of the early influences, inductees Nat King Cole and Billie Holiday, who I wanted to celebrate in this exhibit because folks do not associate them with the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
That’s where I feel like I’m also there to help clarify what rock ’n’ roll is. What it means. What is the feeling. What it represents. Who it represents, and how it represents the rebel in all of us.
We still have a long way to go. The Rock Hall has actually been very conscious of what we’re doing to move forward, even prior to the incidents we’ve seen this year that have just risen to the top and created what I’m calling our civil rights movement of 2020.
There has been a concentrated effort on doing better and acknowledging the fault that exists and acknowledging that, “Hey, we need to diversify our board.”
It’s been very apparent that we need our community. Local, regional, all of that. This is a low-income city. People cannot afford to come to the Rock Hall. Black folks cannot afford to come here. Or it’s like, “The last time I was here was in high school.” And I’m like, well, you know what, if you live in the city of Cleveland proper, you have access to get into the museum for free.
In Cleveland, from the museums to the orchestra, all of the arts and culture, the time of siloing ourselves is out. We all need each other at this point. However we can help amplify what we’re doing and support each other, now is the time.
George Sparks, president and CEO, the Denver Museum of Nature & Science
As told to Jen Trolio
George Sparks has been the president and chief executive officer of the Denver Museum of Nature & Science since 2004. The 600,000-square-foot natural history museum, which regularly accommodates 6,000 to 8,000 visitors at a time — many of whom are school-age children — currently operates at a 25 percent capacity.
We’re really a social experience, museums are. And until the public feels comfortable coming back into a place where they’re around a lot of other folks, it’s going to be tough.
The center of our target is families with children, and in the center of that population is children in middle school. We would normally have 300,000 kids in school come through the building in a year, as part of school groups. And right now that’s practically zero. There are no schools taking field trips.
But we don’t get any real revenue from school visits. Our school visits are purely mission-driven. We’re almost all local — when people come to Colorado for tourism, they head to the mountains. We have 65,000 households as members, which is the largest of any natural history museum in the world.
We have a very wide and diverse revenue stream, which is a giant blessing to us. Smaller institutions that depend almost entirely on ticket sales, or don’t have a foundation or don’t have a lot of donors, they’re going to be in real trouble. Our philanthropy has been really good. The people who give money to the museum have been very generous. They want the museum to thrive.
We opened up after 100 days of being shut down, and about a third of the folks came back right away. They felt comfortable that we had good protocols, that it was safe. So we were running 35 to 40 percent of what we were doing last year. We had restrictions on the number of people we could have in a building, but we really never reached those because people were reluctant. We’re cranked down now to 25 percent capacity.
But we’re delivering 100 times more virtually than we would have before, because that’s the only way we have to deliver programming right now to some of our audience. Colorado is very rural on the western slope and on the eastern plains. And since there are a lot of school kids there, we’re trying to give them access to our science.
We always put 100 percent of our effort into programs in the building before, and now we have the ability, we have the necessity, to provide virtual programming. I’ve just been shocked at how responsive the audience has been. We’ve reached more than 100,000 devices with programming around science, around policy. We have a partnership with Rocky Mountain PBS, where we’re sharing our science programs with them and reaching something like 80,000 people. A lot of these people are rural.
I suspect that when we design things in the future, we’ll take all these factors into account more than we would have five years ago, as far as interactivity. I think the virtual thing is gonna stick.
We use the process of appreciative inquiry to go out and engage with communities. Normally, if you’re from headquarters or the Capitol or wherever, the tendency is to go to a community and say, “You’re really screwed up, I’m here to help you.” That’s sort of the way we as human beings approach communities. With appreciative inquiry, you go to the communities and try to gain their trust by just listening and figuring out, what are they really good at? What do they value? And how do we build upon that?
Once you make that transition, that’s a really big shift. And as part of that shift, our communities feel comfortable coming here because they see their fingerprints on what we’re doing.
[As a country], we’re suffering an economic crisis and a health crisis, but we also have this racial equity crisis. And I think of all three of these, the racial equity [crisis] is the most important, and it will have the greatest long-term effect on museums and on each of us.
For museums, it will be in a couple areas. One, it’ll be around the people we serve. When we really do become more inclusive and more welcoming to everyone, I think we will be a very different place.
It’s an interesting exercise to walk into the building and look for the humans and see how they’re portrayed. The donor wall is almost all white people. And if you want to find somebody of color, they’re in the dioramas with Indigenous people represented. When somebody of color comes into the museum, they recognize pretty quickly if there aren’t many staff around who look like them. And what do the scientists look like, versus the people who are on the front line selling them tickets? Or in the advertising, or the materials asking them to buy a membership? Or, personally, my job?
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The economy will recover. The pandemic, we’ll figure it out. I’m very hopeful we’re going to become a more inclusive country. I’m optimistic about the future, if we execute well. If we ignore these things, we’re gonna fall back. But I think we understand the landscape moving forward as much as anybody can, and we’re prepared to work to change that.
Victoria L. Valentine is the founder and editor of Culture Type, a blog focused on visual art and the intersection of art, history, and culture from a Black perspective.
Constance Grady covers books and publishing for Vox.
Jen Trolio is Vox’s culture editor.