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United States May Lose One-third of All Museums, New Survey Shows

Category: Press Release
A graphic reading "National Survey of COVID-19 Impact on United States Museums" with the logos of the American Alliance of Museums and Dynamic Benchmarking

For Immediate Release

Arlington, VA—The American Alliance of Museums (AAM), the only organization representing the entire scope of the museum community, today warned that one out of every three museums may shutter forever as funding sources and financial reserves run dry. Without near-term assistance from governments and private donors, hundreds of directors reported their museums may not survive the financial crisis brought on by the pandemic.

The new survey of more than 750 museum directors, fielded throughout June, confirmed early estimates of the dire economic harm to museums caused by the COVID-19 closures, which are expected to continue due to recent outbreaks across the country. Museum directors responded to the AAM survey on behalf of their organizations, representing a broad cross-section of the field geographically, by size, and by discipline.

“Museum revenue disappeared overnight when the pandemic closed all cultural institutions, and sadly, many will never recover,” said Laura Lott, President & CEO of AAM. “Even with a partial reopening in the coming months, costs will outweigh revenue and there is no financial safety net for many museums. The distress museums are facing will not happen in isolation. The permanent closure of 12,000 museums will be devastating for communities, economies, education systems, and our cultural history.”

Museums are not only stewards and interpreters of our culture, they are vital sources of employment and economic engines. Museums support 726,000 direct and indirect jobs and contribute $50 billion each year to the economy. Of the museums able to reopen, over 40% plan to do so with reduced staff and will need to spend additional funds to ensure their ability to reopen safely.

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The new research was conducted by New Hampshire-based Dynamic Benchmarking at no charge to the museum field. “This data is critical as the Alliance continues to advocate for the resources museums require to recover from the current financial crisis,“ Lott said. Alliance advocates secured hundreds of millions of dollars for museums, and the Federal Paycheck Protection Program has served as a lifeline for many museums. “However, with the funding running out, furloughs and layoffs will grow without additional financial support from the government or donors.”

Other findings in the new AAM/Dynamic Benchmarking survey show how museums will struggle to recover, even when institutions are able to reopen to their communities.

  • One-third (33%) of museum directors surveyed confirmed there was a “significant risk” of closing permanently by next fall, or they “didn’t know” if they would survive.
  • The vast majority (87%) of museums have only 12 months or less of financial operating reserves remaining, with 56% having less than six months left to cover operations.
  • During the pandemic, 75% of museums stepped into their pivotal role as educators providing virtual educational programs, experiences, and curricula to students, parents, and teachers.
  • Two-thirds (64%) of directors predicted cuts in education, programming, or other public services due to significant budget cuts.

Museums across the country are working to win new funding from federal, state, and local governments this year to help with the crisis. “On average, museums receive less than 25% of their total funding from government sources,” Lott explained. “Money from public and private sources is crucial to saving the museum field.”

About the American Alliance of Museums

The American Alliance of Museums has been bringing museums together since 1906, helping to develop standards and best practices, gathering and sharing knowledge, and providing advocacy on issues of concern to the entire museum community. Representing more than 35,000 individual museum professionals and volunteers, institutions, and corporate partners serving the museum field, the Alliance stands for the broad scope of the museum community.  For more information, visit


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Natanya Khashan
Director, Marketing & Communications

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  1. I hope AAM will track who is closing and distill and disseminate an analysis. Boards are the long-term stewards of museums and their number one responsibility is ensuring sustainability — meaning securing the resources to fulfill mission and advance vision. A top reason for failing museums is failing boards — boards who shirk their fundraising responsibility, and fail to build a high-performing board. We know who they are: the boards with no turnover, the boards who micromanage, and the boards whose members don’t bring strategic resources to the table. Many poorly run businesses, poorly run colleges and, yes, poorly run museums will not survive the pandemic. No doubt some well-run museums operating at best practice levels of performance will fall victim nonetheless due to loss of public funds, collapse of community economies, loss of audience and earned revenue, and inability to meet facility and staffing costs. No one wants to see any museum close. But I’ll be very interested to see whether the museums who don’t survive Covid were accredited, were guided by a strong strategic planning process, had trained staff, had robust community support and, most importantly, had boards operating in compliance with modern best practices standards of AAM and BoardSource.

    FYI at the time of 9/11 I was directing the museum closest to Ground Zero. Our institution came out of that experience stronger than before and I give a lot of that credit not just to our outstanding staff, partners, and supporters, but also to a top-flight Board (which ironically was scheduled to have an executive committee meeting that morning). The Board had in recent years undergone extensive facilitated work with a consultant in top-to-bottom board development. At the same time NY State and our state museum association had made board development the top priority for the accreditation that is required for state museums to enjoy tax-exempt status. Strong Board leadership was critical to our getting past six months of closure and loss of revenue and reemergence into a changed landscape.

  2. In short, I see Brian Thompson’s point as “This is a time when professionalism should be paying off”. It will be interesting to see if that turns out to be the case.

  3. I imagine that the data here is now out of date. Since the survey was implemented additional challenges due to COVID have hit museums. More have laid off staff, and many of us who initially thought we would open June/July remain closed–or have had to re-close

  4. I thank Mr. Thompson for sharing valuable pointers. But the predicted 16-33% of museum closings within the next 2 years or so (see AAM survey) has been potentially in the making for a long time. Covid-19 was just the final dagger into a deflating placenta caused by decades of ill-fated tax-cuts and a citizenry accepting quality-of-life deprivation like sheep to the slaughter. Since doom has arrived, we can only hope for a comeback of healthy taxation levels most vital for public investing. Maybe our crumpled public health system will now ring the alarms loud enough to recognize the systemic public investment failures across the entire wellbeing infrastructure.

    Museums cannot achieve the magic turnaround alone, though, namely inspiring politicians to levy new taxes and citizens or corporations willing to give them (although we do have quite some powerful museum assets at hand to help re-educate the public into inspired, across-the-board giving!). What we need is a massive alliance-building campaign that unites health, culture, education, environmental, and public transportation sectors to revolutionize the marketing of our arguments and action approaches in this field of otherwise simplistic political reasoning (i.e. “I cut your taxes and you vote for me”). Now is the time to forge this large-scale alliance, a new version of unionization in what will likely become a crisis-ridden 21st century.

    We all depend on massive public investments that made America the safe and prosperous place that it became after the New Deal. What once was the pride of the country has been shamed into a politicized taboo. I encourage a look abroad to parts of Europe or East Asia, for example, where especially rural museums are not left behind without at least a certain percentage of their annual budgets reliably covered by tax money. Nobody in their right mind there questions such investments and people know how to appreciate them. This approach would also take the high pressure off of largely not-wealthy-enough board members, as Mr. Thompson correctly identifies for the cities, whereas I’d expand his reference to rural board situations as well. The evolving contexts here came into being by gutting taxes from one conservative political cohort to the next, all swept into office by mindless tax cut pledges.

    As a result, the wellbeing sector suffers, people and businesses disappear, schools and hospitals falter, leaving firms and corporations unable to brag with “Culture” in their job ads by which to lure young talent. With rural resources under enormous duress, those business owners who decided to stay (usually the main supporters of tax cuts) are inundated with board members from various wellbeing organizations vying for donations. Targeted organization toward public investments among wellbeing industry branches can help broaden multi-partisan awareness for the massive benefits of social investments into the long-term sustainability of rural vitality, urban progress, and regional attractiveness.

    I have presented these ideas to various museum audiences and they were usually welcomed as interesting, innovative, albeit a bit radical. That was before the current crisis struck. The latter has opened us a gate of opportunity to claim a radically different status quo for museums along with the enormous needs in the wellbeing sector to catch up with the rest of the developed world. Let’s reclaim taxes for a cultured society as something meaningful by which to reclaim pride of country through well-endowed arts, humanities, sciences, storytelling, healthy lands, and healthy, educated people.

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