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Museums Will Be Vital to the Nation’s Recovery

Category: Advocacy
A graphic reading "Museums Advocacy Day 2022, Feb 28-Mar 1, 2022" with an image of the Capitol building and a megaphone

Prepared Remarks of Laura L. Lott
President and CEO, American Alliance of Museums

Welcome session from Museums Advocacy Day 2022

February 28, 2022

Good morning, museum advocates. Welcome to Museums Advocacy Day 2022! As I’ve admitted before, this is always my favorite week of the year. While I wish we were gathered together in Washington, DC, even through Zoom, I can feel your enthusiasm and see the true power of our Alliance.

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It is wonderful to come together for this event every year—people with many different roles in and around museums and representing all types and sizes of museums from every corner of the country. We are united around one truth: museums are essential. And this week, we are united around one mission: make sure every Congressional office knows museums are essential to their communities and museums must be supported.

The bright side of having a virtual Museums Advocacy Day again this year is that we have nearly double the number of advocates participating than when we were last together in-person. About 550 people from nearly every state and the District of Columbia! And I know there are hundreds more who are calling and emailing their members of Congress as we speak through our “Advocate from Anywhere” resources.

Thank you for taking time to make the case for museums. It’s never been more important. And it is truly amazing what we can accomplish when we come together.

Let’s talk about our recent accomplishments. $3 billion in federal relief funding for museums is what you achieved in the last 24 months. We don’t get to talk about billions much when it comes to federal support for museums. But thanks to your hard work—thanks to your data, your stories, thanks to your using your voices, we accomplished something never achieved in the 116-year history of the American Alliance of Museums.

So far, more than 800 museums across the United States were awarded $1.34 billion in Shuttered Venue Operator Grants. This funding benefited many museums that were ineligible for other relief programs—that were shuttered an average of 28 weeks due to the pandemic. Museums that watched their revenue drop while their expenses continued, and increased in some cases. Museums that maintained their staffs, their live animals and plants, their facilities and non-living collections. Museums that incurred new expenses to offer new types of programming and to implement new COVID safety measures and retrofits. This federal funding saved thousands of museum jobs, countless education programs for school children and beyond … and, frankly, it saved many museums from closing altogether.

But that’s not all. A preliminary analysis of Small Business Administration data on forgivable loans to museums for the first and second rounds of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) shows that approximately 9,160 museums were provided $1.5 billion in relief funds supporting 183,000 jobs. That’s another $1.5 billion in funding and 183,000 jobs saved at over 9,000 museums.

If that’s not mind-blowing, there’s still more! Once you add the relief funds directly from the federal agencies (IMLS, NEA, NEH), economic development funds, and the Employee Retention Tax Credit (which some museums are just taking advantage of now), museums have easily received over $3 billion in federal relief funding. I don’t think any of us would have dreamt that museums would receive this level of federal funding. It is an unprecedented show of support from our government leaders and a tremendous accomplishment for our collective Alliance. Give yourselves a much-deserved pat on the back.

While we had a great showing over the last few years—advocates generated more than 62,000 messages to Congress for example—it wasn’t just our recent work that resulted in this support. Museums were supported at unprecedented levels because of the years of building relationships with Congressional representatives—coming to Museums Advocacy Day every year and making sure leaders and decision-makers stop and reflect on museums for just one day.

It is the years of inviting legislators to your museums—not just for the galas but to see them at work—that led to this support. It is the storytelling and the data collection we’ve been prioritizing to make the case that museums aren’t just nice to have; they are essential. They aren’t just recipients of government and philanthropic dollars; they are economic engines contributing $12 billion in taxes annually and $50 billion to the US economy. And it is data that speaks to elected officials, such as 97 percent of the public supports federal funding for museums.

It’s hard to remember that museums being included in any of the relief funding was not guaranteed 24 months ago when museums were suddenly shuttered. Many of our colleagues were ineligible for stimulus funding following the Great Recession in the late 2000s. And, back then, it was a tough battle to ensure that at least some museums were eligible for federal stimulus funds.

When we gathered for Museums Advocacy Day in February 2020, we didn’t realize a deadly pandemic was about to sweep around the globe multiple times, shutter museums and many places we hold dear for months and months. But when we got hit by the crisis, your Alliance—and by that I mean AAM, along with our allies at the Association of Science Museum Directors, the American Association for State and Local History, the American Public Gardens Association, the Association of African American Museums, the Association of Art Museum Directors, the Association of Science and Technology Centers, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and others at the national, regional, state and local levels, as well as individual museums—we all worked together to build awareness about what was happening to museums and their employees. We demanded help.

When the crisis hit, we were not starting from scratch. You had already built the foundation. Your congressional offices heard your stories. They knew the value of museums and how important we are to communities, to families, and to the struggling P-12 education system, to the aging population (some of whom were the most isolated during the lockdowns) and to the economy. Without the foundation that we, together, have been building for years, I’m afraid we never would have gotten the funding for over 9,000 museums and nearly 200,000 jobs.

I’m so grateful for all of our museum champions—in Congressional offices, in museum board rooms, at other professional associations, and in museums themselves. I’m grateful for your years of hard work—especially those supporters and advocates who have been coming to Museums Advocacy Day for 5 or 10 or all 14 years! I’m grateful for all the letters you sent and the calls you made.

I’m grateful for the leadership at IMLS—Crosby and Laura—and the former leaders at NEH and NEA who quickly worked to get relief funds to museums. During the pandemic, OMS has provided critical leadership to the museum community through its CARES Act, American Rescue Plan grants, and the agency has been providing science-based information and recommended practices to reduce the risk of transmission of COVID-19 to staff and visitors engaging in the delivery of museum services. And our Communities for Immunity partnership with IMLS and ASTC and others is working to boost COVID-19 vaccine confidence in communities across the country.

And last, but certainly not least, I’m grateful for the amazing staff at AAM, led by the dynamic duo of Barry Szczesny, Government Relations & Public Policy Director, and Ember Farber, our Director of Advocacy—and their counterparts in government relations work across the field. Thank a government relations person today, because I know they all worked day and night to track legislation, pursue relief funding opportunities, provide data to Congressional offices, and call on advocates at critical moments.

And thank your legislators. Let them know how much the relief funding meant—or if your museum was left out, respectfully, let them know the ongoing impacts and challenges.

Sadly, we have still lost many museums during the pandemic that have not yet—and may not ever—reopen. 12 percent of respondents to our last Covid Impact Survey in Dec/Jan were still closed! 17 percent reported they are unsure of their future—or if they can survive. That translates to 6,000 museums—thousands of communities that may lose their only museum. There are many museum workers still out of work, and others who suffered losses. We think about these colleagues every day and won’t ever stop working to build a stronger, more sustainable museum field.

Our survey data shows the museum field will take years to recover to pre-pandemic levels, that investments will be needed to rebuild our museums anew based on all we learned over the last few years. And investments to realize museums’ true potential as contributors to our nation’s and our communities’ recoveries.

And all of that is why, even with unprecedented levels of funding recently, we cannot rest on our laurels. We’ll be asking, tomorrow, for museums to be included in any forthcoming COVID-19 pandemic relief. This is a time to be bold and to do everything in our collective power to continue to demand support for our museum field. The pandemic and its fallout provided an overdue wake-up call for Congress, for media, and for decision-makers who haven’t always understood museums, our precarious business models, or our true value. We must share the message that many museums across the country are still struggling with the devastating impacts of being closed and from dramatically reduced attendance even when they can open.

Despite the hardships, for years now museum professionals have continued to work to meet the needs of their communities—from providing spaces for remote and virtual classrooms to lesson plans, engaging online learning opportunities, and drop-off learning kits to teachers and families. From donating supplies to feeding hungry community members to serving as vaccination sites and addressing vaccine hesitancy, museums continue to demonstrate the many ways they are vital to their communities. And, looking ahead, museums will be vital to the nation’s recovery and to the rebuilding of communities, big and small, urban and rural, all across the country. Museums are essential to helping society address many of our most pressing issues, from the climate crisis to racism and economic disparity.

AAM’s recently released 2022-2025 Strategic Framework includes our commitment to helping you learn from one another; to help you better define, measure, and communicate your museum’s impact as an essential part of the community infrastructure; and to advocate for the value of museums and their power to change the world. We’re working to provide more tools and resources, including many that were part of the programming offered in the past month, leading up to Museums Advocacy Day—on storytelling and the most recent data. If you missed any of the four sessions, please be sure to check out the recordings available in the Museums Advocacy Day Event Center.

Decision makers need to experience and hear directly from you about why your museum matters, how you’re contributing to the resiliency and equity of your communities and working toward a more just and sustainable world. By doing so, we will all build a thriving museum field, together.

When we meet—in person—in May in Boston at the 2022 AAM Annual Meeting, we will discuss and share more tools. And we want to hear from you about what else you need.

So, what are our asks for our members of Congress? Be sure you know your asks! First, as I mentioned, we are asking for additional funds for museums’ relief and recovery for the Small Business Administration’s SVOG program as well as for PPP for museums ineligible for SVOG due to its requirement that museums have “fixed seating.” In addition, continued support of the IMLS Office of Museum Services Funding is a top priority. There is high demand for funding from the IMLS Office of Museum Services. Last year, OMS received nearly 1,000 applications requesting $154 million. But current funding has allowed the agency to fund only a small fraction of the highly rated grant applications it receives. We are asking for $54.5 million in fiscal year 2022 funding for the IMLS Office of Museum Services, a much-needed increase of $14 million, and to provide a robust funding increase for FY 2023. This funding would allow OMS to increase its grant capacity for museums, funds which museums will put to good use in helping to serve and rebuild their communities. We also ask that funding be included for the agency to explore establishing a roadmap to strengthen the structural support for a museum Grants to States program.

I also want to call out our requests on tax policy. Museums are part of the broader community of 501(c)(3) charities, and charitable giving accounts for about one-third of museums’ operating funds, on average. Maintaining and increasing tax incentives for giving is therefore essential to the museum field. The major tax incentive for giving is the tax deduction for charitable gifts, but only about 10 percent of taxpayers can use it, because most people don’t itemize deductions. Another tax incentive is the IRA Charitable Rollover, which allows seniors to give tax-free from their retirement accounts. We join numerous other charities with an “ask” for both.

My colleagues will go into far more detail on these “asks.” And you have your draft script.

In closing, I want to reiterate, while we continue to be in unchartered territory, none of you is alone. In fact, I’m proud to say that the museum field has never been more united in our work to champion equitable and impactful museums by connecting people, fostering learning and community, and nurturing museum excellence. I especially want to welcome our 314 first-time attendees, our student advocates, our trustee advocates, our corporate sponsor, Blackbaud, and representatives of our 47 partner organizations, as well as the individual museums and museum leaders who contributed in support of museums advocacy this year. Together, we are a force!

I leave you with two tips: First, there are a lot of very contentious and very important issues facing our federal government these days, and there is great divide across our political landscape. But it is critical that, today, we focus on making the case for museums. The moment we start talking about other issues, we lose our chance to make the case for museums during Museums Advocacy Day. Second, I know that this audience is not shy … I know you all love to talk about your own work and your own institutions. Please personalize and localize your stories as much as possible. Throughout the pandemic, AAM has been sharing information constantly with decision-makers. What we can’t do—what only you can do—is tell the local stories about your museums and why they matter to your communities.

Thank you for making the time to participate this week. Please don’t stop speaking up for museums when Museums Advocacy Day is over. And thank you for your support of our Alliance—there is no Alliance without you.

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