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By the numbers: How the pandemic is transforming museums

There’s no getting around it: The pandemic has presented an epochal challenge for museums.

Forced closures all but zeroed-out earned income, as visitors stayed home and museums scrambled to connect with audiences online. Painful staff reductions soon followed, as did slashed budgets, canceled exhibitions, and scrapped programs.

The pandemic, coupled with protests following the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, brought museums under intense scrutiny, prompting many to redouble earlier efforts at reinvention — be it through cultivating a more inclusive workplace, expanding programming to become less male and Eurocentric, reinterpreting permanent collections, or negotiating with newly unionized staff.


Now, as the pandemic grinds on, it has become clear there will be no tidy pre- and post-pandemic cultural landscapes to compare. The coronavirus is fundamentally reshaping museums, but the nature of that change — like the pandemic itself — is evolving, as visitor behavior shifts, demographics change, and cultural institutions rethink the business models they’ve used for decades.

What museums will eventually look like is anyone’s guess. Still, clear trend lines begin to emerge when you compare the economic health of nine of the state’s largest museums over two critical periods: July 2018 through July 2019, and July 2020 through July 2021.

Overall, it is a story of dramatic contraction: Combined, these nine museums hosted nearly 3.5 million fewer visitors during the pandemic years than in the previous period, a decline of more than 75 percent. Their cumulative operating budgets shrank by more than $51 million, and they cut their full-time staff by nearly 15 percent.

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But there are also some distinct bright spots, where museums hatched creative projects to meet the moment. The Institute of Contemporary Art, for instance, has transformed its East Boston Watershed facility into a food distribution center, offering each recipient an art kit to boot. Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum turned one of its galleries into a vaccination site and now offers rapid COVID-19 testing, and the Worcester Art Museum again opened its facilities as a polling site during the 2020 election.


Meanwhile, The Clark Art Institute in Williamstown leveraged its outdoor campus (and a serendipitous outdoor show) to boost overall visitor numbers past 100,000 compared to roughly 125,000 during the non-pandemic years. (Like its peer institutions, however, the Clark’s indoor galleries saw visitor numbers plummet, as shown in the charts below.)

But perhaps the most revealing statistic is one that mirrors the deep economic inequality the pandemic unmasked. In this era of layoffs and institutional belt-tightening, the state’s museum endowments — large portions of which are often restricted — have been on a bull run, growing by a combined $372 million between July 2019 and July 2021. Together, these nine endowments are now valued at some $2.34 billion.

Here, then, is a snapshot of where each museum has been, where it is, and, perhaps, where it is going.

Malcolm Gay can be reached at malcolm.gay@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @malcolmgay.