Museums, galleries prepare for another bleak year

Citing gains in digital outreach and innovation, the leaders of Ottawa's national museums are determined to stay positive as they anticipate another year of shutdowns and lower-than-usual revenues.

Lack of visitors, ticket revenues and programming to continue through the year

National Gallery of Canada director Sasha Suda says she is encouraged by the recent increase in local visitors, but she doesn't expect tourists to be back for awhile. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

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."

Christina Tessier, the CEO of Ingenium, which manages three national museums in Ottawa, says a lot of visitors won't return to museums until the vaccine rollout is complete. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

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.

"[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.

A staff member makes her way through a temporary welcome tent and screening area at the Canadian Museum of Nature, part of their COVID-19 precautions. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

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.

While museums are able to reopen their doors now once again, leaders of the cultural institutions say they don't expect to be returning to normal operations anytime soon. 8:48

'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."

Two kids wear masks as they take in an exhibit at the Canadian War Museum. The museum is one of a number of national cultural institutions that saw revenues plunge in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

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:

In the search for close-to-home activities, Ottawans find galleries and museums

CBC News Ottawa

2 months ago
Sasha Suda, says Ottawa residents looking for activities close to home visited the gallery more in 2020 than in previous years, giving a boost to visitation numbers despite the lack of international visitors. 1:16

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


Sandra Abma


Sandra Abma is a veteran CBC arts journalist. If you have an event or idea you want to share, please do at

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversationCreate account

Already have an account?