Museums, like other businesses, have been shuttered during the pandemic, and even when they have been open, their revenues have dropped drastically.
“We’re basically small businesses, we’re not for profit usually, but we’re still a small business and still have some of those same issues,” said Linda Endersby, advocacy chair for the Missouri Association for Museums and Archives.
Endersby is also the registrar and collections manager at the University of Missouri Museum of Art and Archaeology, though she emphasized she was representing the association, not the university, in her advocacy.
Museums Advocacy Day has been put on annually by the American Alliance of Museums for more than a decade.
Last year’s advocacy day also occurred in February, shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic forced similar events to be canceled or go virtual. One year later, advocates from Missouri found the new virtual format to be largely beneficial.
“We’ve got 12 people from Missouri participating, and we’re getting a constituent from each legislative district (except one),” Endersby said. “The virtual aspect of it this year has allowed us to do that, because we don’t have to pay for everybody to go to D.C.”
Endersby said a national survey by the American Alliance of Museums found roughly one in three museums was at risk of closing. That would total nearly 12,000 museums nationwide.
“We did a survey just Missouri specific, and it did find that up to almost a quarter of them are worried about it. We know of at least one museum that has already shut down,” Endersby said.
Even museums not at risk of closing are facing reductions in staff and programming, she said.
If a museum does close, it is unclear what happens to artifacts and records of historical value, Museum Association President Amanda Langendoerfer said.
“I don’t even want to think about what happens to the collections,” Langendoerfer said.
Langendoerfer is also the associate dean of libraries for special collections and museums at Truman State University.
One goal of the advocacy day is to push for adequate federal aid and funding in order to help prevent such high numbers of permanent museum closures.
Seeking funding changes
Before their conversations with lawmakers began Tuesday, advocates spent Monday in training on what museums need most in this difficult time. They heard presentations from different agencies, including the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts, and learned what is needed for those agencies to best fund museums.
One thing advocates asked lawmakers and their staff for was a change to the Small Business Administration’s Shuttered Venue Operator Grant, a part of the federal COVID-19 aid package that was aimed primarily at concert venues and theaters.
The grant requires a venue to have fixed seating. Sara Wilson, former president of the museum association and the current executive director of St. Joseph Museums, said this requirement can prevent museums from receiving funds. Most museums use their space adaptively, and, as such, even areas used as auditoriums are likely to have movable furniture.
“That was one of the asks, for Congress to appropriate more funds for the shuttered venue grant program, and that would also allow them to remove that fixed seating clause so that museums can take advantage of that,” Wilson said. “A lot of museums aren’t able to.”
Another request was to lower the threshold for charitable tax deductions. Wilson said museums saw a decrease in smaller donations after changes were made to the deduction process in the 2017 tax bill. The threshold was temporarily lowered due to the CARES Act, but advocates would like to see that change made permanent.
Advocates from Missouri spoke with the staffs of each of Missouri’s eight House members and both U.S. Senators. In each meeting, at least one of the advocates was from that representative’s district.
Endersby, Langendoerfer and Wilson all agreed that Tuesday’s conversations with lawmakers and their staffs went really well.
One factor that helps advocates for museums is the overwhelming public support for them. According to the American Alliance of Museums’ 2017 poll, 96% of Americans support maintaining or increasing funding for museums.
“We are popular,” Endersby said. “That’s a good thing for us. Everyone likes museums.”
Langendoerfer emphasized not only museums’ popularity but their importance. She said two statistics from Monday’s training stuck with her while speaking with staff members.
“Museums contribute $50 billion to the U.S. economy each year, and more people attend and visit an art museum, a science center, a historic house, zoo or an aquarium than attend a professional sporting event,” she said.
What lies ahead
Endersby said normally the appropriations process — when funding decisions are made — begins shortly after the advocacy day, but this year staffers and lawmakers told her it would begin later, perhaps in April.
The later process is mainly due to there being a new presidential administration with nominees to confirm, along with congressional focus on COVID-19 legislation.
President Joe Biden has yet to submit a budget proposal to Congress, an action that usually kicks off the appropriations process. Earlier in February, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki cited a “lack of cooperation” from former president Donald Trump in the transition as the reason for a delay.
Looking further ahead, Langendoerfer said museums are ready to welcome more and more people back through their doors as the pandemic eases.
“I think museums have shown an amazing resilience to different ways of engaging the public, and so they have worked hard to learn technology and turn on a dime to be able to reach out virtually,” Langendoerfer said.
She sees potential for a revival in museum interest as they more fully reopen and resume in-person programming.
“A lot of people want to come back,” she said.
MU’s Museum of Art and Archeology, which was moved from Francis Quadrangle to Mizzou North in 2015 over outcry from community members, may not benefit from any of the funding efforts — it’s complicated.
University museums are typically subsidized by their institutions and are not operated as businesses the same way other museums are, Endersby said. As such, any impact federal funding changes might have on the museum’s future location is unclear.
The goal of the advocacy was to make lawmakers aware of the needs of the museum community as a whole, rather than to advocate for any one museum.