Rethink, Restructure, Reset

Major museums and galleries across the world are at different stages of re-opening. The Uffizi Galleries and Vatican Museums are a step ahead of museums in the UK and North America. Their experience is a window to the future. Tom Agar reflects on a recent Webinar with museum leaders that highlighted the significant challenges ahead.

Tate Director Maria Balshaw recently announced that Tate Modern and Tate Britain will re-open to the public in early August, signalling the start of a COVID-19 recovery phase. Few other public galleries or museums have been as bold at this stage, but many are expected to try and claw something back from a shortened summer season. While exciting for culture-philes, it is also a tense, worrying time for those concerned about a second spike.

Coupled with this is the unprecedented financial impact that COVID-19 is having on cultural organisations. After three months of closure, their limited financial reserves have dwindled, even with the government’s support packages.

Expectations have adjusted. The objective for 2020 is survival, hopeful of recovery in 2021, and a return to some new normal by 2022. Museums and other heritage attractions are rightly keeping a keen eye on destinations abroad that have already begun to carefully re-open.

A recent webinar organised by the Advisory Board for the Arts and Bocconi University brought together cultural leaders from around the world: Kaywin Feldman, Director of the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC; Barbara Jatta, Director of the Vatican Museums; and Eike Schmidt, Director of the Uffizi Galleries in Florence.

These places are at very different points in their recovery. The Uffizi Galleries and Vatican Museums re-opened at the start of June, while museums and galleries in the US will remain closed until at least July. The Italian institutions therefore provide a glimpse of the future.

To ensure physical distancing, the Vatican Museums capped their total daily capacity at 4,000 pre-booked slots, of which around 3,600 were filled on the first day, mostly by residents. To put this in context, a normal June day would see them welcome between 20,000 and 25,000 visitors. Throughput is less than 20% of normal. Some organisations are more optimistic. Both Tate and the Washington National Art Gallery hope to achieve an average of 30% of their usual attendance for the rest of the year.

There are many in the sector who believe a return to pre-pandemic visitor numbers may never be possible. A huge reduction in overseas travel, plus lingering fears of infection, are likely to persist long after the lockdown has ended. On a more positive note, the effort to improve the cultural experience – which predates the pandemic – has only intensified, as organisations find the space and the impetus to try new things.

A few key themes emerged from the panel.

The pandemic has emphasized the importance of cultural experiences. Our inability to participate in the arts in lockdown has reminded us of their value. Digital substitutes – however imperfect – have only strengthened our appetite for the real experience. When the people return, they will come with renewed interest, staying longer and looking for more, better, different. Both the Uffizi Galleries and the Vatican Museums are limiting group sizes and extending opening hours to facilitate this.

Physical distancing requires a re-evaluation of space. Small galleries or dead ends have been shut, while larger spaces or outdoor areas are being re-purposed and used for new products.

Exhibitions are likely to be smaller and less frequent, focusing on stories of relevance to local audiences. Blockbuster exhibitions are mostly off the slate, as are expensive loans or touring shows. Exhibitions will last longer, straddling financial years where possible to spread out the expense.

The need to attract repeat and regular visitors has graduated from ‘important’ to ‘essential’. Destinations in world cities can no longer rely on the travel trade or a high volume of flying visits from ‘tick-a-box’ tourists. They need to cultivate a loyal, local audience through relevance, change and membership.

The financial challenge is unprecedented. Capital projects will be delayed or cancelled, and all non-essential spending stopped. There will be downward pressure on salaries. When the furlough tap is turned off, redundancies are inevitable, as organisations consolidate roles and seek other efficiencies. This will, in turn, increase the burden on volunteers.

Competition for fundraising and government support will be fierce. Organisations will seek flexibility over restricted funds and reserves. Some will not survive without a bailout of the scale recently announced by the German government.

Overseas organisations are more comfortable with charging for admission, but a mature discussion about charging should happen here too. The idea of variable or dynamic pricing was discussed with interest – organisations should be responsive to demand, allowing individuals who can and will pay more to do so.

While the webinar struck a surprisingly positive tone – many seeing lockdown as an opportunity to rethink, restructure, or reset their organisations – the lingering feeling remains of a sector stuck somewhere between the frying pan and the fire. Re-opening is a start – but the road ahead will be tough and uncertain.