More than half of UK museum directors are concerned their institutions will no longer be viable in the wake of the coronavirus crisis, as social-distancing controls threaten to hit visitor numbers and income.
Museums and galleries have been closed since March under lockdown rules, and there are growing fears among curators and directors about the long-term impact of the public health crisis on their ability to stay afloat.
Six out of seven directors said they were worried about their ability to attract visitors back after the restrictions are lifted. Some 56 per cent were concerned about the viability of their organisations, as ticket sales and other commercial operations such as shops and cafés are a vital source of income at museums and galleries.
The figures come from a survey of 427 museum directors and professionals published on Thursday by Art Fund, the UK art fundraising charity, which supports museum acquisitions and curatorial training.
Sarah Philp, Art Fund director of programmes and policy, said the survey findings bore out anecdotal fears of an “existential crisis” for many museums and galleries.
The Art Fund research did not name institutions or directors. But Ms Philps said there were some museums that feared they would be unable to reopen even after restrictions had been lifted. Few institutions have deep financial reserves and the spring and summer months are when they make most of their money.
Those without the cushion of national or local authority funding are particularly vulnerable. “The irony is that in the situation we’re in, those museums that have done best at commercialising and diversifying their income streams are in the most immediate danger,” said Ms Philps.
Museums in England will not be allowed to open until at least July 4, a date that may also be put back depending on government advice.
When they do reopen, social distancing arrangements and controls on visitor numbers will be needed. Museums are planning different arrangements for reopening, depending on their location, the type of building they occupy and the nature of their collections.
Ms Philps said directors were having to plan for two opposing situations: that people would not feel safe in returning or alternatively that they would flood back in dangerous numbers. “In both of those scenarios they’re trying to work out how to operate in a safe and responsible way,” she said.
With fewer visitors anticipated, revenues generated by ticket sales, shops and cafés are set to fall yet the crisis is likely to mean higher costs in cleaning and front-of-house staff.
Directors are turning to museums in mainland Europe for practical advice on reopening, since some have already begun to reopen there, with reduced footfall, guided tours and wearable devices to ensure social distancing.