Museums Reopen With Massive Financial Strains Under COVID-19

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BINGHAMTON, NY (WSKG) – Museums in the Southern Tier can now reopen, but the financial toll of the statewide shutdown has placed a strain on that effort.

Jillian Forstadt/WSKG News

The Roberson Museum and Science Center in Binghamton is implementing health and safety measures upon reopening in July. (Jillian Forstadt/WSKG)

In March, the American Alliance of Museums estimated as many as 30 percent of institutions—mostly in small and rural communities—will fail in the COVID-19 financial crisis without “significant and immediate emergency financial assistance.”

The Roberson Museum and Science Center in Binghamton reopened on July 1, but much of its staff is still out on furlough. While the museum closed due to COVID-19 concerns in March, the cost of maintaining the museum continued.

Michael Grasso, the museum’s executive director, said that even without visitors, the museum had to pay to regulate the air and temperature of its halls to protect items on display.

“Those expenses still continue whether or not there are people here,” Grasso said.

Grasso said the Roberson Museum is expected to lose a third of its yearly revenue. To temper the burden, approximately half of its staff was furloughed upon closing. Its administrative team also took pay cuts, with work hours reduced from five days a week to four.

Federal funding from the CARES Act allocated a combined $200 million in aid to museums nationwide, distributed to institutions through direct grants from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Many museums, however, are facing budget deficits for the upcoming fiscal year. Grasso said the Roberson Museum is looking at a deficit of $250,000, even after nearly $50,000 in budget cuts.

“We are trying not to limit our programming. It’s important to us that we stay relevant, that we stay engaged with our community, that we continue to provide the same services that we always have,” Grasso said. “But that deficit budget certainly looms over our heads.”

To survive the crisis, Grasso said museums throughout the Southern Tier will now have to look for new revenue sources. While no plans have been made public, Grasso said it will likely include collaborations between Binghamton-area museums and other cultural institutions.

“We will be looking at more mergers between different institutions, we will be looking at shared services, ways to reduce costs,” Grasso said. “Different services we can provide that will increase revenue for us.”