KC Voices: Don’t let COVID take our museums too
We’ve been asking members of the KC community to submit stories about life under quarantine, protests, politics, and other subjects that require discussion. If you’ve got a story you’d like to share, please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org for consideration. Today, Sarah Garten informs us about the struggles facing museums in pandemic and their eventual return (?) to normal (?). As we enter the holiday giving season, mayhaps keep the idea of donating to some of these locations in your heart.
When I left work on March 11, 2020, it was a safety precaution. I was 38 weeks pregnant and that afternoon my office-mates were discussing how a man in KCK passed away from COVID-19 without any understanding of how he became infected with the virus. My colleagues at the non-profit I work at were concerned for my health, so I cleared out the fridge, packed up my laptop, and figured I’d work from home for two weeks while this blew over. I thought worst-case scenario, I’d work from home and then go straight into my maternity leave.
Like most people, I didn’t think I’d be writing this article in October and still be working from home like I was on March 12. For most Kansas Citians life started to look and feel a little different around that same time. My family members were all slowly ordered to work from home, my friends as well. Even friends as far away as Europe were sharing similar stories with me via Zoom about stay at home orders and the lack of available toilet paper. While many of us were rightfully occupied with concerns about the economy in general, how we would survive the next few months without our friends and family, and hoping our colleagues kept their jobs, I’m guessing most of us didn’t spend much time thinking about how a global crisis like COVID-19 might impact our cultural sector.
I’ve worked in museums since graduating from KU in 2010. Starting out as an intern at the Smithsonian, I found my way to the Nelson-Atkins, then to graduate school in Seattle and back home again where I now work for Mid-America Arts Alliance. You might know M-AAA from our gallery on First Friday, and our private parking lot that is oh-so-tempting to try and snag a spot in during a busy weekend night in the crossroads. What you probably don’t know about the work my organization does is how we serve museums across America. It’s one of our goals to help small to midsize museums by making culturally rich art exhibitions available at federally subsidized rates. It’s because of this work that I was paying close attention not only to our constituents who I’ve grown close to but also my colleagues from coast to coast as they posted on Twitter or sent me text messages to vent about what was happening in their community.
Like your office and mine, museums, libraries, zoos, and other cultural organizations had to close their doors in March of 2020. I’m sure most of you have wonderful memories of strolling your favorite museum, and likely think of it as an icon of your community – something that could surely survive COVID-19. After all, most of them are local landmarks, like the castle on a hill. Unlike a castle on a hill, however, a museum typically runs on a delicate balance of generous donors, grants, memberships, event rentals, and ticket sales. Revenue from all of these angles were hit during COVID-19. It’s crucial to remember that the same thing most people love about their museum is exactly that, it feels like it’s YOURS. This is because museums take pride in weaving themselves into the community, and they should, as they are charged with the important task of preserving our history for future generations. You should care about them, and you should take pride in seeing your community’s history on display.
Many of you will read this and think that surely your favorite museum was not impacted in such a way that they considered drastic measures to stay afloat, but I guarantee you nearly every museum was deeply hurt. Colleagues from across the industry started culling together a spreadsheet that tracked layoffs, salary reductions, and other measures taken to stay open. Large museums in New York, Chicago, Seattle, and Kansas City, all reported hits that impacted at minimum pay reductions to keep staff on board.
The hardest pill to swallow has been the closure of so many small museums across our country. As a kid who was obsessed with art, some of my most formative memories come from visits to the National Gallery in Washington D.C., and the Nelson-Atkins here in Kansas City. I’m certain both make it through this challenging time in our history, but I’ve heard from many smaller museums located in rural communities across the country whose survival is more tenuous. In smaller towns across America, museums, libraries, and historical societies work tirelessly to bring exhibitions to their communities to share new ideas, preserve history, and spark conversation amongst schoolchildren and retirees alike. To lose this would mean for some, a loss of cultural education.
The American Alliance of Museums (AAM) executed a survey to examine how museums are faring during this time and in July of this year released the findings stating:
“The survey results document extreme financial distress in the museum field. One-third (33%) of respondents were not confident they would be able to survive 16 months without additional financial relief, and 16 percent felt their organization was at significant risk of permanent closure. 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. Forty-four percent had furloughed or laid off some portion of their staff, and 41 percent anticipated reopening with reduced staff.”
An example of this is the Clinton House Museum in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Prior to COVID-19, the Clinton House offered a variety of traveling exhibitions, permanent exhibitions, and events to their local community. Their Board released this statement saying: “On September 21, 2020, the Fayetteville Advertising and Promotion Commission voted unanimously to approve a motion to decrease funding for the Clinton House Museum for 2020. We understand the vote was made in response to the substantial decrease in tourism revenues resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.” Because of this closure, not only will the community miss out on educational lectures and other cultural programming, but people will lose their jobs and a house on the National Register of Historic Places will no longer be available to the public.
As this version of Groundhog Day persists in our everyday lives, I urge you to think back on your childhood, or even your life before COVID-19, and think about the museums that made an impact on you. Specifically, if there is a smaller museum that you love to visit, or visited in your hometown growing up. If you have the means to do it, consider becoming a member or gifting a membership to that museum this holiday season. If you want to make a difference but can’t financially help, consider becoming a volunteer, or contacting your representatives in Congress to ask for more relief money for museums and cultural organizations. If you want to continue to help, make your membership automatically renew so your museum can count on you to continue helping even after this pandemic is something our grandkids will experience in their local museum in the future.