How Museums Are Diversifying to Attract New Audiences in the Post-Pandemic Era

Getting new audiences in the door is important, but some museums are focusing on making the experience more meaningful so visitors will come again.

The Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
Museum attendance is up but not necessarily back to pre-pandemic levels. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The pandemic did a number on museums in the U.S. and worldwide. When these institutions closed for varying lengths of time, they lost admissions and membership revenues while people, perhaps, lost the habit of going to museums. Many museums pivoted to online programming (e.g., digitized collections, exhibitions, educational material), which made visiting institutions seem optional. Foreign tourism to the U.S. from Europe and Asia also dropped during this period, and audience numbers have continued to lag behind pre-pandemic levels, particularly at museums on the east and west coasts—several of which raised admissions fees from $25 to $30 in 2023. Complicating matters is the fact that there are simply fewer people in the urban centers where most major museums are located thanks to liberal work-from-home policies instituted during Covid.

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Some museums responded to the ongoing strain with highly visible changes. New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum laid off employees, while the Dallas Museum of Art furloughed some full-time staff, reduced the number of traveling exhibitions coming to the institution and had fewer open days each week. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art eliminated twenty staff positions, citing a 35 percent decline in visitorship compared to 2019 attendance. It stands to reason that other institutions faced similar challenges even if they responded differently, and uncertainty may ultimately have dealt museums a larger blow than reduced attendance.

Many museum officials did more during the pandemic closures and slow reopenings than fret and hope things would return to normal, but it’s not always clear what worked and didn’t. At Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, 2023 attendance reached 425,000, up from 375,000 visitors in 2022 and 345,554 in pre-pandemic 2019, which may be the result of people taking full advantage of the ability to be out in the world, maskless.

Across the nation, museums continue to “see fewer visitors, but those that come are spending a little more, so it all is balancing out,” said Dennis Gephardt, a senior credit officer who specializes in working with nonprofits at Moody’s Analytics. The key to institutional success going forward, he added, will be “remaining relevant to audiences.”

That message has been heard, with other institutions emerging in 2023 in better shape than in 2019 as a result of strategic changes. “Things are going great here,” said Gary Tinterow, director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. “We are at pre-pandemic levels of attendance. Our budget is at an all-time high.” And there have been changes to who visits the museum, he noted, which bodes well for the future. During the pandemic and since, “older people were circumspect about going out.” Before Covid, the majority of the museum’s visitors were over 40, but now the largest group is under 40.

He credited their success to the opening of a new contemporary art building in the fall of 2020, along with the museum’s new gallery of Judaica, guidance from its African-American art advisory council and special exhibitions of African-American and Latin-American art, which helped the museum forge a new identity in the community and attract previously underrepresented local audiences. “Houston is not dependent on tourism,” he said. “Ninety-two percent of our visitors are local to Houston, not to Texas, but Houston specifically.”

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If the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has experienced a downturn in attendance, the nearby Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (the de Young and the Legion of Honor) have seen a return of visitors exceeding pre-pandemic levels—1,459,583 (2023) compared to 1,413,817 (2019). “We used the pandemic closure first of all as an opportunity to turbocharge our exhibition program, doubling down on DEIA [diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility] and community engagement and highlighting creativity within our region, while also focusing on art and ideas, both historical and contemporary, from around the world,” explained Thomas P. Campbell, Director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Among the more popular exhibitions in the past year were shows of works by Kenyan artist Wangechi Mutu, as well as African-American artists Faith Ringgold and Kehinde Wiley, which “had a huge community impact, as did the inauguration of our triennial juried show for Bay Area artists.” Additionally, the museums “hired a new director of interpretation, whose sole assignment is to make our collections and exhibitions more accessible and relevant.”

Many museums have found that promoting diversity, within the museum and in its collections and programming, has given them a quantifiable boost. “We’re in really great shape,” said Rand Suffolk, director of Atlanta’s High Museum of Art. Household memberships at the institution numbered 26,000 in 2016, with a renewal rate of 47 percent, while 2023’s household membership reached 37,000 with a 70 percent retention rate. Memberships overall are up 20 percent since 2019.

All museum directors around the country are “dealing with the same universe of problems,” he said, but “we are dealing with them on a hyper-local basis and, in the process, earning credibility within our city.” Strategies explored at the museum have included increasing the acquisition and exhibition of artworks by women, LGBTQ and BIPOC artists. Since 2015, Suffolk explained, “BIPOC participation at the museum has been 15 percent but, in 2023, that rose to 57 percent.” And forty percent of museum visitors now come from households earning under $70,000. “We’ve tried very hard to dovetail our strengths with the community’s needs and interests.” The result has been long-time visitors coming back and newer ones coming in.

Museums are making internal diversity-driven changes

In addition to looking outward, museum officials are also looking inward to identify opportunities to make changes that better reflect their audiences. Since 2020, Linda Harrison, director and CEO at the Newark Museum of Art in New Jersey, which closed for nineteen months during the pandemic, said that the institution’s BIPOC staff has increased from 25 to 38 percent. “We went deep into local programming,” she added. “We asked ourselves how we could be part of the local community.” And the museum has made a point of acquiring works by “contemporary artists, women artists, artists of color and artists from various diasporas,” paying for some of those pieces by deaccessioning more traditional stalwart artworks (i.e., pieces by white, male artists) to raise the necessary funds. The Guggenheim hired chief its first culture and inclusion officer in 2021.

One more way museums have tried to attract visitors from local communities is by diversifying their docents, who are generally volunteers. Nationally, more than three-quarters of museum docents are white, retired women, and one after another, institutions around the country have taken steps to make their docents more diverse. In 2021, the Art Institute of Chicago dismissed its entire pool of volunteer docents with the aim of filling those positions with paid guides who look more like the groups they lead. Other museums have looked for ways to achieve similar goals, although through attrition rather than in one fell swoop. A spokeswoman for the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, which has been making strides in this area, told Observer that the institution wants to “develop inclusive recruitment strategies in efforts to cultivate a diverse pool of volunteer candidates that are reflective of the audiences the MFA serves.” It’s a contentious move—the Art Institute of Chicago faced accusations of ‘reverse racism’—but expect that the trend will continue at museums around the country.

How Museums Are Diversifying to Attract New Audiences in the Post-Pandemic Era