In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic response, art museums moved to the bottom of the priority list for institutional support. While much of the population can imagine a world without field trips and vacation visits to their local art museum, historical precedent indicates it is worth exploring the pandemic's lasting impacts. Art museums are already experiencing significant setbacks as the internet reigns media, but must now adapt to a sudden loss of visitors. Museum responses varied, from complete shutdowns to rapid digitizing of entire collections.
Although the first public art museum's founding dates back hundreds of years, the practice of collecting and displaying art originates much earlier. Exhibitions of the extraordinary have weathered change, not only global pandemics but also revolutions and wars. However, today's museums are faced with the paradox of growing accessibility of collections but decreased interest in favour of other media. In the last few decades, public art museums have launched initiatives to break the century-old societal norms that restrict fine art to the highly intellectual population and aristocracy. Despite the increased outreach efforts of these institutions, they compete with the seemingly infinite reach and accessibility of the internet. With the growing reach of social media, contemporary museum programs have failed to effectively garner the younger generation's attention, contributing to a disproportionate number of older visitors and a constant "catch up" with modern technology.
Nevertheless, art museums serve a purpose beyond their ability to attract visitors. In a statement provided by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts Public Relations Director Karen Frascona, she highlights that "Ultimately, our mission to care for and preserve the art for generations to come does not change." Indeed, Frascona touches upon an unseen dimension to art museums. With most major public museums only displaying only 5-10% of their entire collection, the value of art museums expands beyond everyday exhibitions. Public art museums especially are responsible for the research, storage, and preservation of artistic and cultural history. Many also function beyond their institutional purpose of conservation, and with museums like the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art holding community events and free admission days. There is an undeniable importance of art museums to public life and world history, prompting further investigation into the future of these institutions as they face extinction.
In mid-March, as college students were sent home, and major companies shut down offices, art museums around the world closed their doors. From urban giants like the MET to small galleries in suburbia, officials and administrators deemed art museums unsafe due to their emphasis on public gathering. With uncertainty ahead, many museums also cancelled or postponed upcoming events and exhibitions until further notice.
Most staff members began working from home, and public art museums tried to adapt their visitor experiences to an online format. Every museum approached this rapid shift differently, from virtual tours of the Tate Modern's Warhol exhibition to the Guggenheim's increased social media presence. Some museums, like the Harvard Art Museum, already offered online catalogues of their entire collection, and the strain of the pandemic only increased this approach throughout the museum world.
This online shift is unprecedented, and not without criticisms and professionals raising concerns. Laura Roberts, a museum consultant and esteemed educator, noted that before the pandemic, many museums had "the sense that if the collection is put online, people won't come to the institution." While the recent move online was forced and lacked gradual implementation, it has been vital to sustaining public engagement. However, Roberts highlights a much bigger problem: "the truth is no one has figured out how to monetize it, and that's not sustainable in the long term." Although community programs and exhibitions will eventually recover their original format, having to adapt to a completely online community forced many public art museums to confront their own technological shortcomings.
In researching and discussing with museum historians and industry professionals, three significant problems repeatedly surfaced. First and foremost is the physical aspect and appeal of museum-going. The Harvard Art Museums provides an online catalogue of their entire collection, but still retains a constant stream of visitors and long-term members. To many in the industry, this type of practice proved that museum-going physical experience is unparalleled online. Standing in front of artwork creates an emotional reaction and atmosphere of thought that does not exist while staring at a computer screen.
The experience of an art museum is also made complete by a sense of public gathering and contemplation. Frascona emphasized that for the Boston MFA, "the notion of gathering is at the core of our thinking around reopening." This sentiment seems to persist throughout most museums, which poses considerable challenges under pandemic restrictions. Roberts discussed that museums would likely implement policies like one-way routes, reservations for visiting, and descriptive plaques and labels. However, Roberts also noted that these solutions are not applicable everywhere, as one-way routes are only logical in smaller museums, and labelling poses problems with unconventional layouts.
The second problem that arises is tours. Handheld audio devices would require copious sanitation and coordination, and museums fear that adding audio tours to the internet will render the museum experience useless. Most importantly, the complete lack or lasting decreases in museum visitors profoundly impacts in-person group tours. Professionally trained docents are a large part of museum culture, and many face unemployment and uncertain futures. Roberts cited that in addition to visitors, most docents and museum educators are biologically older, putting them at high risk during the pandemic. Without these educators, museum accessibility faces a whole new host of challenges. Despite easing restrictions globally, it seems unlikely that the population of fully employed museum educators and docents will return to normal.
Finally, public art museums face an uncertain future regarding visitors and the financial toll. Even with drastically decreased attendance, museums still obliged to maintain their facilities and collection. This deficit will irreversibly wound many smaller museums, and the International Council of Museums warned that around 10% might never reopen altogether. In an interview, Roberts also pointed out that the majority of museums, regardless of size, are virtually now local museums. Even if the restrictions begin to lift, travel will remain severely limited, meaning all museums must rely solely on their local community for patronage. In addition to the staggering financial implications, this change may alter museum culture for the coming decades.
Roberts spoke from historical precedent, explaining that "after a recession, museums do new shows out of their permanent collection, and it is a lot less financially risky." Inter-museum collaborations will decrease, just as independent artists need the most help. Artists are among those struggling to find stability during the pandemic's economic consequences, but they may face barriers to exhibition and employment well beyond the period of COVID-19 itself.
All these new challenges amount to a rather bleak prediction surrounding the future of art museums. However, experts hope that the pandemic pushes forward institutional changes that had previously stalled. At the forefront, the pandemic has proved an online approach to museum-going is not only doable but often vital as a contingency. Although concerns over the sustainability of online collections are still a concern, many public art museums are updating their facilities and education with modern technology and improving accessibility. With the growth of an online presence, many museums hope to attract more visitors from the younger audience.
Another source of hope for these public institutions' future is a renewed bond with the local community. Many major museums are typically focusing on attracting international visitors, but the pandemic has encouraged greater collaboration and outreach with local patrons. With strengthened bonds and a new emphasis on local community, the importance of these public spaces will hopefully resonate throughout local governments and encourage preservation.To their credit, public art museums have all stressed their commitment to public safety. As reopened museums welcome visitors back, many of the changes made during the pandemic may become permanent. As an arts non-profit organization, Arts Help encourages everyone from casual museum-goers to art history enthusiasts to support their favourite museum through donations, engagement, and patience. Public art museums have existed for hundreds of years, and though permanently altered, they will continue to serve their communities and preserve invaluable history.