What recent museum attendance numbers tell us about the disparate impact the pandemic is having on local arts communities.
Between local restrictions that vary wildly from state to state and the unique makeup of individual arts institutions, the pandemic is impacting American art museums in markedly different ways. Since initial US lockdowns last spring, many art museums have managed to open for weeks or months at a time. Examining attendance figures provides a snapshot of how the crisis is impacting local arts communities that could reveal what the short-term future holds.
In the broad historical context of the Harwood Museum of Art’s nearly century-long existence, the pandemic is one history-making footnote among many that the beloved Taos institution has faced over the decades, albeit a quite serious one. According to Executive Director Juniper Manley, the brief month-long period the museum managed to open between coronavirus surges this fall brought larger crowds than expected. “We had around 50 people a day on average,” said Manley. While the numbers were encouraging for the rural museum, Manley was surprised to discover that the majority of the attendees were out of state visitors and not Taos locals. “People in Taos are being very cautious and are still very hesitant to do something like go to a museum.”
A bright spot for the Harwood that Manley noted was its virtual offerings, to which it pivoted after realizing the museum would need to be closed on and off throughout 2020 and beyond. “We completely shifted our public programming to getting things available online,” explained Manley, who said forty-five artists were showcased over two digital exhibitions. For one digital event held over Zoom, the museum recorded an attendance of ninety-two people, nearly twice the amount of in-person visitors it saw on an average day during its brief opening this fall. Manley credits the success of the digital exhibitions to the removal of geographic limitations. However, with much of Taos’s art-supporting public falling into at-risk categories because of older age, it’s not clear when or how many locals will visit the museum in person the next time it opens if it chooses to do so without a clear resolution to the pandemic.
In contrast, contemporary art museum SITE Santa Fe reported receiving a steady stream of visitors that consisted of mostly local attendees since reopening in September. “It’s been amazing to welcome people back to see a show that was just days away from opening when we shut down in early March,” said Irene Hofmann, director and chief curator. With New Mexico’s case totals exploding in recent weeks, SITE was forced to pare back access to its space and is currently allowing entry only to its members. While virtual offerings are currently still in development for SITE, the art-hungry guests who managed to visit the museum when it was open to the public expressed a deeper appreciation of in-person experiences and the museum saw more guests than expected for specific exhibitions, according to Hofmann.
While broad trends in museum attendance are challenging to identify between constantly shifting restrictions and the unpredictable nature of the pandemic, some in the art world have sounded the alarm over waning visitor tallies. The New York Times recently reported that European art institutions are currently receiving around a third of the attendees they typically would at this point in the year. Experts say that even when adjusting for safety measures enforced by the museums like limited capacity rules, attendance is still down significantly.
Dr. Khristaan Villela, Executive Director at the Museum of International Folk Art, reports far thinner crowds than usual for this point in the year, when the museum usually enjoys a boost during New Mexico’s Balloon Fiesta event, which is a popular tourist attraction. “From mid-March until the present, MOIFA and the other state museums have only been open for a month, so the near-complete lack of museum attendance was new and unexpected this year. When we reopened on September 24, before having to close again a month later, attendance was much lower than the same time last year, which coincided with Balloon Fiesta. But museums all over the world that have reopened during the pandemic have seen the same trends of low attendance.”
Since reopening on July 1, the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver dramatically reduced ticketing capacity to 17% of the building’s designated occupancy, a decision made to strictly adhere to Denver’s pandemic-related safety guidelines. “We’ve been seeing roughly half of the overall exhibition attendance compared to last year,” says Nora Burnett Abrams, MCA Denver’s director. But between the MCA Denver’s successful virtual exhibitions and a deep appreciation expressed by the guests who’ve managed to visit the museum in person this year, Abrams conveyed measured optimism about the museum’s future. “We’re living in two worlds to meet people where they’re at during this pandemic. It’s certainly not the same as it was before COVID-19, but we’ve seen consistent engagement from our existing and from new audiences. There’s a lot of untapped potential in being able to provide rich, meaningful content virtually to people who may never even set foot in our museum.”