A masked visitor strolling through the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York when it reopened for members on August 27, 2020. (photo by Hakim Bishara for Hyperallergic)

Since the onset of COVID-19, some American museums have responded aggressively to the pandemic’s effect on their bottom lines. Many institutions shut down operations for the better part of 2020, attempting to mitigate the subsequent financial losses through sweeping staff lay-offs and furloughs that impacted some of the industry’s most precarious workers. A new report published by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) emphasizes the extent of the financial damage caused to the museum field by the ongoing pandemic and sheds light on how institutions plan to move forward. 

More than 700 museum directors participated in the survey, fielded between December 8, 2021 and January 20, 2022 and focused on data the organization began collecting in June 2020. Of those museums that are currently open to the public, respondents reported a return to an average of 62% of their pre-pandemic attendance. As it relates to staffing, and contrary to the dire predictions of 2020, nearly three-quarters (73%) of responding museums said they have been able to retain or restore all of their workers, most of them citing the government-administered Payment Protection Plan (PPP) as their primary source of relief. 

A particularly significant finding of the eight-page report reveals that 47% of respondents plan to rehire or increase staff size over the coming year, with only 2% reporting they would employ fewer contracted workers. But while nearly half of museum respondents indicated plans to increase the hourly rates of its lowest paid employees, only 15% reported a commitment to decreasing the gap between the highest and lowest paid workers. The findings come as income disparity in the museum sector continues to grow, with institutions such as the Guggenheim in New York City drawing scrutiny for their disproportionately generous compensation of top officials.

More than half of institutions currently recruiting for job openings reported having trouble filling open positions, echoing a larger trend across industries in the United States. Positions in guest services, retail, and other front-of-house departments were identified as the most difficult to fill, followed by jobs in facilities, maintenance, and security. Education department roles rounded out the top three “difficult to fill” categories. 

Notably, the limited options for front-of-house staff to work remotely indicate a lingering structural challenge for the daily functioning of museums, especially as remote work becomes the growing preference for workers during the pandemic. According to the survey, the option for remote work was most often extended to executive-level roles and positions in curatorial, marketing, development, and education departments, proving that institutions’ lowest-paid workers continue to face the highest risks associated with operating amid the virus.

The ongoing pandemic and the threat of new variants is also cited by the majority of respondents as the primary challenge to operations in future. AAM’s report does not, however, account for how museums plan to retain staff and provide a more secure future for their employees in the event of the need for another round of closures.

According to Laura Lott, AAM’s president and CEO, the sector will “take years to recover to pre-pandemic levels of staffing, revenue, and attendance.”

“Far fewer museums than expected are in danger of permanent closure and tens of thousands of jobs were saved thanks to several federal relief programs,” Lott said in a statement. “However, 2021 proved to be another painful year in which operating income sank further and attendance was down nearly 40 percent for many of our nation’s museums.”

Kristina Kay Robinson is a critic from New Orleans, Louisiana. Her writing has appeared in Guernica, The Baffler, The Nation, The Massachusetts Review, and Art in America, among other outlets. She currently...