Museums Face Financial Woes, Get More Visitors

MuseumAfter the Great Recession swept through, the Delaware Art Museum had laid off half its staff, cut salaries and lost crucial support from corporations. Yet attendance was up last year at the Wilmington museum, reflecting the same trend museums have seen across the country because of declining funding and increased demand from schools and “staycationers.”

A report being released Monday by the American Association of Museums shows more than 70 percent of the nation’s museums were under financial distress last year because most saw government and corporate funding reduced from an already bad year in 2009. At the same time, half of the nearly 400 museums in the survey reported increased attendance and educational programs. The median admission price remained $7 for adults.

“I think the survey results show a real commitment to the work of museums, that people would rather freeze hiring and lay off staff than reduce the service they’re providing to the American people,” said Philip Katz, the museum association’s assistant director for research.

For many, budgets continued to decline for 2011.

Six years ago, the Delaware museum had a staff of 65 and regularly hosted traveling art shows. But a sharp decline in corporate donations has meant cuts beyond its staff size. In 2008, the museum canceled all the shows from outside groups it had booked three years ahead and began staging all exhibits in house.

Any budget increases for the years ahead will be devoted to restoring staff salaries or paying for rising utility costs, Museum Director Danielle Rice told The Associated Press.

“I don’t think there’s going to be too much left for programs,” she said. “It’s been tough to keep morale up.”

Instead of blockbuster traveling shows, the museum refocused on regional artists and partnered with Chinese, Latin American and other community groups and other arts organizations. A strong summer with student groups also helped draw in 64,000 visitors last year in a city of about 70,000.

The national survey shows financial stress was greatest for museums in the mid-Atlantic states, from the District of Columbia north to Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey, in part because the region saw severe snow storms that shut business down for days and high unemployment in some areas. The region also has the highest concentration of museums, Katz said.

Financial declines were least severe for museums in the nation’s midsection.

Katz noted investment income was recovering from declines in 2009 and many museums expect 2011 to be stable or improve over last year. Still, some survey participants noted philanthropists had shifted their focus toward social services or other causes during the recession and have not yet restored their support for museums.

For the Maryland Science Center in Baltimore, there have been declines across the board. The biggest hit came when the city and surrounding counties eliminated funding streams and the state slashed its annual contribution. Over the past three years, the museum lost $586,000 in government funding. State lawmakers cut funding by half to $588,000 this year.

The state support allowed the museum to offer free admission to all students. That’s been reduced from about 100,000 students in 2008 to less than 30,000 this year. The museum’s overall attendance declined about 15 percent since 2008 to 385,000 visitors last year. It furloughed part-time staff for a month last year and laid off 12 staff members last month.

Van Reiner, president and CEO of the science center, said fewer families were visiting the museum as well, though there’s been a slight uptick recently. Still, he expects attendance to be flat or down slightly this year amid a sluggish economic recovery.

“We’re only 40 minutes away from Washington, D.C., and the single largest free-admission museum in the world, the Smithsonian,” he said. “Whether that has bled off some of visitors, I really can’t say … people are a little more cautious about the way they’re spending their money.”

The free Smithsonian Institution museums in Washington recorded a second year of more than 30 million visits last year for the first time since 2001.

In the survey, museums in the western states saw solid increases in attendance, and museums in the Southeast were least likely to see more visitors.

Source: The Associated Press.