Museums and arts organizations, like all nonprofits that interact personally with those they serve, have been particularly challenged, as COVID-19 has forced them to close their doors and wait for the crisis to end. As income streams have dried up and budgets have turned a glowing red, we are seeing an entire nonprofit sector struggle for survival, balancing immediate threats against future needs.
Last week had its lowlights. Hyperallergic reports that, according to Laura L. Lott, CEO of the American Alliance of Museums, the sector was losing more than $30 million a week. For Indianapolis Contemporary, which was struggling before, the burden was too great; they’ll be shutting down this week, according to the Indianapolis Star. President Casey Cronin said, “As we took a closer look at projecting where we would be in the coming months, we found that there is a likelihood that we would run out of money sometime soon and in the next few months. So, we decided that it was better to make the decision, unfortunately sooner, rather than risking running out of funds.”
Big and small, museums struggle to decide which of their staff they can afford to keep. New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) is among the world’s wealthiest museums; its endowment was $1 billion entering the crisis. Still, it announced it would be canceling the contracts of its cadre of freelance educators. Museum director Adam Weinberg announced the Whitney would lay off 76 staff members, since, “we have no way to know how soon after we might reopen or how a longer closure might affect the Museum’s finances.” And the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art “announced it would lay off 120 of its 165 employees across every department.”
There aren’t very many bright spots in all of this, but Sarah Bailey Hogarty, director of marketing and communications for the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, finds some areas of opportunity within the difficulty. “It’s a pretty exciting time, in a dark way, because there are a lot of new ways to engage audiences and to convert extant content into new and fresh modes of storytelling.”
Josh Mack, vice president of marketing for the Museum of Jewish Heritage, recognizes the challenge will not end quickly. “I’m thinking this more like a marathon than a sprint. It’s a pivot from a place where our education efforts are about people coming in [and] teaching.”
To get to the finish line, nonprofits will need to make difficult choices. They may need to look at their assumptions about the purpose of their reserves and endowments when they consider the value of their human capital to the future that follows the crisis. They will need the support of funders, public and private, to provide bridge funding to protect all their resources—employees among them.—Martin Levine