A Year in Review: An Assessment of the 2021 Museum Forecast

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody

January 05, 2022

With the closing of a year, we’re naturally inclined to turn inward and reflect on how the last year has gone. It can be an uncomfortable practice, especially when the year has been tough.

I think it’s fair to say we’re all a bit more exhausted than usual and we could benefit from a physical and emotional nap. But, if you’re anything like me, some mental processing of “What happened?” needs to occur before I can achieve restfulness. So, before we close our eyes for that nap, let’s review what this last year held for us with a specific focus on my 2021 forecasts. In the Museum Forecast 2021 post I speculated on how the following three areas would evolve in 2021: museum closures, collections deaccessioning, and digital collections. This post will outline the specifics of my forecast for each area and offer observations on how those areas actually evolved over the course of 2021.

Museums Will Close (Forecast for 2021 Revisited)

Surveys in 2020 led the American Alliance of Museums to warn that we are at risk of losing 1/3 of all museums in the United States. To quantify this, losing a third of museums would mean losing approximately 11,550 museums as there are more than 35,000 museums in the US alone. Small museums and museums that were already financially struggling pre-COVID will likely close first. (As will other humanities-based organizations like liberal arts colleges). These closures will disproportionately take place in small, rural areas; and for museums who exhibit collections of underrepresented peoples.

My forecast is that US museums will receive some additional financial relief from the government, but it will still be painfully slow and inadequate. It’s going to take repeated and forceful advocacy from all of us to make sure the museum field’s needs are met.

How “Museums Will Close” Actually Played Out in 2021

In the US, Canada, and Europe, federal funding was made available for museum operation costs and could be applied for as loans and grants. The amount of funding was slow and inadequate given the size of the museum industry and the duration of their continued financial losses. However, the initial warning of the US losing 1/3 of all museums appears to be an overestimation. The latest survey performed by ICOM (from April 15 to May 29, 2021) affirmed numbers in all measured categories are still bad, but the pace of losses is slowing. For example, during this survey period, 15% of participants affirmed they had been laid off due to the pandemic. While 15% is an alarming number, ICOM confirms that it’s down 5% from last spring’s number. The survey also shows that the percentage of museums facing permanent closure fell from 12.9% of respondents in spring 2020, to just 4.1% in spring 2021. A survey sponsored by the American Alliance of Museums showed similar numbers in summer of 2021. But we’re not through this period of darkness just yet. ICOM’s latest report allows for some optimism, but they echo the same warning I gave in my 2021 forecast: Advocacy on our part and action from our collective governments will be essential to stanching our losses.

Resource: This Google spreadsheet created by Adam Rozan is tracking museum closures. When viewed at the time of writing, this spreadsheet shows 44 museums closing during 2020 and 2021.

Collections Accessioning and Deaccessioning (Forecast for 2021 Revisited)

In order to more adequately represent and serve our communities, we have to drastically augment museum collections and permanently shift the focus of acquisitions from overwhelmingly white cisgender men; to include everyone else. In order to do so, collections will need to be broken in order to be repaired—meaning museums will need to deaccession and sell off portions of their collection in order to both create storage and exhibit space, as well as free up money to finance the acquisition of new items. The selling of collections is historically controversial, but unless money can be found elsewhere this is the only immediately available option. With COVID-19 impacting museum finances, organizations such as the American Alliance of Museums have relaxed their guidelines on the selling of collections and several are taking advantage of this opportunity.

My forecast is that many museums will take advantage of this opportunity in order to both shore up their bottom line as well as help rectify their monosyllabic collections.

HowCollections Accessioning and Deaccessioning” Actually Played Out in 2021

While there’s no official list of how many museums participated in selling part of their collection, there are several large examples. Newark Museum’s plan to deaccession art in order to recoup financial losses triggered an angry letter signed by 60 historians in May 2021. In September 2021, The Met Museum made headlines for its plan to deaccession 219 photographs and prints (all duplicates) in order to bring in $1 million dollars to mitigate their revenue shortfall. And, given that 2021 is reported as a record year for Sotheby’s (with $7.3 billion in sales), we can get a sense for just how many museum items have been sold. The current flexibility granted by the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) via a resolution passed in April 2020 is due to expire April 2022. This resolution expanded the current allowance of sales proceeds to diversify holdings to also include covering collections care costs—i.e., the funds can be used to supplement pandemic losses. There’s no official word yet on whether the resolution will be allowed to lapse, be extended, or permanently adopted. Given that the pandemic-precipitated financial losses continue to mount for museums, it would be unwise for AAMD to let the resolution lapse.

Digital Collections are a Higher Priority (Forecast for 2021 Revisited)

If COVID-19 has taught us anything it’s that if your museum doesn’t have collections online then it has virtually no way to serve its audience while it’s closed. While we may one day get to whatever our new “normal” is, the fact is the way we fund, prioritize, and deliver our digital collections has undergone a monumental change—if only mentally because money issues remain an issue. We’ve spent a solid 12 months shifting our work and focus to our digital collections. We’re innovating on how we deliver our collections, leveraging what tech tools we have to the max, and learning that our current Collections Management System (CMS) implementation is lacking.

My forecast is that many who work with a sub-par museum collections management system will find it easier to push for an upgrade. More money and attention will be paid to digital collections this year, and it’s on museum professionals to seize this opportunity to make their digital collections better.

How “Digital Collections are a Higher Priority” Actually Played Out in 2021

The shift to prioritizing investment in museum digital projects is a shift I think would’ve continued to slowly occur over another 10-20 years had we not been presented with the pandemic. Obviously, I included the acceleration of this shift in my forecast last year, as did AAM’s Center for the Future of Museums’ TrendsWatch report. (You can read more about my thoughts on this trend here). The takeaway is that investing in digitizing our collections and born digital material was already an increasingly important area to focus on, and the pandemic dramatically underscored its importance.

Conclusion

The opportunities highlighted in my forecast last year proved to be insightful and relevant. Though the last year has still had its challenges, the museum field as a whole has been able to emerge a bit better off than we initially thought. So, cheers to closing the book on 2021 and may we all have peaceful naps in our future.

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody

Expert Rachael Cristine Woody advises on museum strategies, collections management, and grant writing for a wide variety of clients. In addition to several titles published by Lucidea Press, Ms. Woody is a regular contributor to the Think Clearly blog and a popular presenter. She also partnered with Lucidea to develop a free grants directory and database; use it along with a free grants workbook to familiarize yourself with grant strategy and use the four grant project templates provided.

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