Some of Minnesota’s largest museums, fighting to survive financially after being closed for months by the COVID-19 pandemic, are about to reopen — with some limits.
The Minnesota Children’s Museum reopens Saturday and the Science Museum of Minnesota opens Sept. 4. Most of the Minnesota Historical Society’s sites aren’t opening until October at the earliest.
The museums don’t expect to break even any time soon — caught between safety concerns and the pressure to welcome back visitors, who bring in most of their revenue.
“This is a threat to having cultural institutions exist,” said Dianne Krizan, Children’s Museum president. “It’s just painful to imagine a world past this pandemic where we don’t have these beloved institutions.”
One out of every three museums in the U.S. — some 12,000 museums — are at risk of not surviving the crisis, according to a new study by the American Alliance of Museums. In its survey of more than 750 museums in June, a third of leaders say they’re unsure their organization can survive or say there’s significant risk of shuttering for good.
“Museum revenue disappeared overnight when the pandemic closed all cultural institutions, and sadly, many will never recover,” said Laura Lott, CEO of the alliance. “Even with a partial reopening in the coming months, costs will outweigh revenue and there is no financial safety net for many museums.”
For the Minnesota Children’s Museum, the next three months will be a big test to see what the demand is for the St. Paul museum and if it’s worth staying open. If the pandemic lasts until spring, the museum — which lost more than $2 million being closed for four months — will re-evaluate if it’s sustainable, Krizan said.
Zoos and museums rely on revenue from visitors — including from school field trips that are unlikely to happen this year even if schools resume meeting in-person. In the alliance’s study, more than half of museums have only six month of reserves.
These nonprofits need emergency help from the government and private donors, said the alliance, which requested at least $4 billion in aid from Congress in March. The CARES Act provided some funding to local museums, but the alliance said that didn’t meet museums’ needs.
In the alliance survey, 71% of museums applied for Paycheck Protection Program loans and 80% of those received funding. In Minnesota, the Science Museum received a $4.6 million loan and the Children’s Museum got $1.2 million to cover staffing costs.
Even so, the Children’s Museum laid off four employees in June and reduced hours for four other positions. Most of its 150 employees are back to work, but some are still on furlough, without pay since March. Last week, the Science Museum laid off 158 staff, nearly 40% of its workforce.
But unlike all of them, the Science and Children’s museums have more high-touch exhibits. The Minnesota Historical Society is allowing visitors at only six of its 26 historic sites and museums across the state while it works on safety plans for the State Capitol, the Mill City Museum and the Minnesota History Center.
Inside the Children’s Museum, tape marks off seating areas 6 feet apart and employees constantly wipe down buttons and toys after children play in an area.
“My kids have missed this place so much,” said LaDonna VerStrate of Eagan, whose 9-, 7-, 6- and 4-year-olds were engrossed in building with oversized blocks, which replaced foam noodles because they’re easier to clean. She was among 130 members with special access Thursday before the official reopening.
August is usually one of the busiest months for the Children’s Museum, but Krizan is anticipating attendance will be half what’s normal because it’s restricting crowds to below 25% of capacity to ensure physical distancing, and some families may not be comfortable visiting. She estimates the museum will lose $3 million between now and next summer because of lower attendance. About 1,000 people have bought tickets for the next two weeks, but none of the time slots are sold out, Krizan said.
The closure in March came at the museum’s busiest time because of spring breaks. About 60% of the Children’s Museum’s $6 million budget comes from program revenue.
“Whoever thought that we’d be in a time your admissions revenue would go to zero?” Krizan said. “It’s just a financial crisis that’s difficult to navigate.”
The nonprofit launched a special fundraising campaign to try to bridge the financial gaps, and a virtual gala this week brought in $250,000. Krizan said she could also draw down from the organization’s $4 million endowment.
She said museums elsewhere in the U.S. are “hibernating” to wait out the crisis. But she didn’t consider that an option — yet.
“The longer you’re closed, the longer you’re out of mind,” she said, adding reopening keeps staff employed and helps children cope during uncertain times.
“The kids need to get out; they’ve been cooped up too long,” VerStrate said.