Museums, galleries prepare for another bleak year
Lack of visitors, ticket revenues and programming to continue through the year
While the directors of Ottawa's national museums dream of welcoming back throngs of families, curious kids and art lovers, they don't expect crowds to return in droves any time soon.
"When we look at 2021, we're not sure it's going to be very different from 2020," said Christina Tessier, president of Ingenium, the crown corporation managing the Canada Science and Technology Museum, the Canada Agriculture and Food Museum and the Canada Aviation and Space Museum.
The COVID-19 pandemic has inspired cultural institutions to expand their digital reach — with virtual field trips, classroom programs, and an abundance of new content — but it's also caused revenues to plunge as ticket sales, banquets and parking receipts all dried up.
Tessier said Ingenium lost $7 million last year, and it will be some time after the vaccine rollout is complete before attendance returns to normal.
"It's likely that there's still going to be visitor hesitancy. That's what we're seeing in our survey data," said Tessier. "And so the fiscal year we're about to enter looks very similar to us to the fiscal year that we're currently in."
Bailout was a 'lifeline'
Tessier says museums have been working closely with the Department of Canadian Heritage and are looking for "additional support" in 2021 after a $25.7-million emergency bailout last June.
- Museums 'thrilled' with $25.7M pandemic bailout
- Look but don't touch when capital's museums reopen
- Federal funding helped 'keep the lights on,' says NAC head
"[The money] really was a lifeline," said Meg Beckel, the director of the Canadian Museum of Nature.
The museum was forced to close during its peak summer and winter holiday seasons, Beckel said, leading to a loss of more than $9 million. They've also postponed a major exhibition called Bug Lab from Te Papa, the national museum of New Zealand, until the summer of 2024.
The situation likely won't improve, she added, until tourists — which account for between 40 and 50 per cent of the museum's summer traffic — begin returning to the capital.
While local visitors will return to healthy levels in the next 12 months, for national and international travellers, it could take years, Beckel said.
"I think it's going to take time, because tourism, airlines, hotels, there is a lot to be rebuilt," she said.
'Open and close, open and close'
At the Canadian Museum of History and the Canadian War Museum, interim president Caroline Dromaguet is dealing with a staggering 96 per cent loss in operating revenues as of Dec. 31, 2020, a loss of $12.6 million compared to 2019.
While the pandemic has been a "catalyst" for creativity and collaboration, it's also led to a reduction in programming, she said.
"We have to be ready to open and close, open and close," said Dromaguet.
Dromaguet said more financial assistance from the government will be necessary if the museums are to continue filling their national mandate, and that Canadian Heritage was "well aware of our challenges."
Gallery sees glimmers of hope
At the National Gallery of Canada, director Sasha Suda said she's seeing glimmers of hope as patrons report feeling safe ambling through the vast gallery spaces, which allow for easy physical distancing.
WATCH | National Gallery was more of a draw to locals:
Even so, the gallery suffered a 90 per cent loss in revenue last year, forcing them to postpone their upcoming winter exhibition, Canada and Impressionism: New Horizons to 2022.
The national gallery's major summer show on Rembrandt still plans to launch May 14.
"Revenues will continue to be lower than they have in previous years," Suda said. "How much lower ... still remains to be seen, but significantly lower is pretty determined at this point."
In a statement, Canadian Heritage said it was "working closely" with the six national museums, along with the National Arts Centre and the National Battlefields Commission, to "assess the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic."
- A previous version of this story said a National Gallery of Canada exhibition started in 2021, not 2022.Feb 25, 2021 9:30 AM ET