Looking ahead: Insights from our museum directors’ research
Art Fund recently carried out the third in its series of annual research into the impact of Covid-19 on museums. Over two years on from museums’ doors first closing, our director of programme and policy, Sarah Philp, shares her view on what the research tells us about the current moment, and what Art Fund will be doing next.
In May 2020, when we published our first museums sector Covid-19 survey, we could not have imagined the impact the pandemic would have on all aspects of our personal and professional lives. It is only now, two years and three surveys later, that we are even beginning to understand the long-term effects and imagining a cultural landscape beyond the pandemic. In this context, Art Fund’s third Covid-19 survey suggests a direction of travel for the sector and gives grounds for optimism, but also strikes an important note of caution.
It is undoubtedly the case that emergency funding underpinned the survival of the sector. Although a third of museum directors remain concerned about their long-term survival, this has reduced since last year. This is largely thanks to national public sources of funding, accessed by 88% of respondents who had received emergency or recovery support, and to local authority sources, accessed by 56%, as well as the generosity of philanthropic bodies and the general public. This support has meant museums across the UK have been able to weather the last two years and reopen their doors.
Furthermore, the resourcefulness, creativity and ambition that characterises the sector is ever-present, and many museum directors have been able to use this time of crisis as a period to reflect, reimagine and drive necessary and important changes that will help museums and galleries remain relevant and engage audiences into the future.
Now, in a position to think beyond mere survival, this year’s research shows an upwards trend, with income and visitors both steadily returning – at 68% and 61% of pre-pandemic levels respectively.
But this isn’t the full story. The pandemic caused an existential crisis for the sector, and the emergency funding that saved many museums camouflaged an underlying financial fragility, with yearly cuts to staff and services meaning that many museums were already struggling to maintain buildings, retain expert staff and provide services for their communities.
And looking ahead, the cost of living crisis will be a huge challenge to museums’ operations, their staff and their audiences. With emergency funding no longer available, the true impact of past cuts and future losses will be felt sharply and deeply.
At the heart of this storm are museum staff and volunteers. 59% of museum directors report fewer volunteers and 57% report more staff facing mental health struggles. Two years on, the mental health of those who have gone through the pandemic is a priority for museum directors, and as the impact of redundancies begins to be felt, there is a risk to the range of services museums can offer their communities, and to the ability and expertise to care for collections that underpin these services. There is perhaps more ambition than ever across the sector, but it can only be achieved by a well-supported workforce.
Art Fund has been proud to support museums as they found creative ways to use their collections and engage their audiences. By the end of 2022, thanks to the continuing generosity of our 130,000 members and the insights provided by the sector through these annual surveys, we will have given over £6m of Covid-19 response funding. Beyond funding, we will continue doing all we can to support museums as they rebuild over the next few years. Not only will this research help us to develop and direct our own funding and advocacy, but we hope that it will also support other funders, agencies and government bodies to continue to champion our brilliant and vital museums sector.
As you continue inspiring us with your ambitions, our current programme has lots of exciting opportunities to help you achieve them. Our next big adventure, The Great Escape, can help you engage schools and communities. Our Student Opportunities grants can help those of you interested in engaging students and young people. Our Weston Loan Programme can help you borrow works from national collections and share them with your audiences.
I am grateful to cultural consultants Wafer Hadley for their work undertaking this research. I am also immensely grateful to the museum directors who took time to participate, and to their teams for making all this work possible. It is an absolute privilege to work with you all.