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Art Fund research uncovers the impact of Covid-19 on UK museums

The pandemic marked a time of fundamental change for the cultural sector, the country, and the world as a whole. Now, Art Fund is exploring what this now means for the future of the UK cultural sector.

The world is still reeling from the fall-out from the Covid-19 pandemic, which has affected every aspect of modern life from health and wellbeing to travel and, of course, the arts. Art Fund has been reflecting on this period of intense change, carrying out the third in its series of research projects looking at the impact of the pandemic on UK museums.

Two years on from the first period of lockdown, Art Fund has put together its findings on the longer term effects it has had on the cultural landscape, imagining what this may mean for the future of museums across the country.

The impact of the pandemic is still being felt and assessed

When the pandemic was at its height, emergency funding was essential in underpinning the survival of the cultural sector. However, Art Fund reports that a third of museum directors still remain concerned about their long-term survival, despite 88% of respondents having received emergency or recovery support alongside the generosity of the public and philanthropic bodies.

The majority of museums, however, now find themselves in a place beyond mere survival, as Art Fund’s research shows an upward trend in both income and visitors returning – 68% and 61% of pre-pandemic levels respectively. Many museum directors report using the time of crisis to reflect, reimagine, plan and implement important changes which have helped them remain relevant and engaging to audiences.

Yet there has been, and continues to be, great struggle. The pandemic highlighted the overall financial fragility of the sector, according to Art Fund, with emergency support merely acting as a bandage. And looking ahead, the current cost of living crisis is likely to bring fresh challenges for museums who were only just starting to find their feet again. It is thought that escalating energy prices, high inflation levels, increased pressure on salaries and more will put museum operations, staff and audiences in jeopardy. With emergency funding no longer available, the true impact of past and future losses is expected to be felt deeply in the coming months.

What’s more, Art Fund reports that, on average, visitor numbers are down 39% compared to pre-pandemic levels, with museums relying more heavily on digital platforms for engagement and drumming up interest.

The pandemic has had an emotional impact as well as a financial one

At the heart of all the uncertainty surrounding UK museums lie concerns over museum staff and volunteers. According to Art Fund’s report, 59% of museum directors report fewer volunteers, and 57% report more staff facing mental health struggles. Many museum directors are prioritising the mental health of those who have gone through the pandemic, especially those whose roles were felt to be at risk.

This reflects the mental health struggles felt by the wider communities that make up museum audiences, and there is perhaps more ambition than ever for museums to provide support, reflection and distraction. Yet their own struggles are making this difficult to achieve. Only a well-supported workforce, reports Art Fund, can deliver the level of service and cultural value that their audiences need.

Looking ahead

This year marks the first time that we are starting to see how the pandemic will transform the cultural sector in the long term, and Art Fund’s research offers a fascinating insight into how museums and their staff are rallying together in the face of continued uncertainty and challenges.

Not only this, but the report also aims to help Art Fund itself develop and direct their funding and advocacy, while supporting other funders, agencies and government bodies to continue uplifting the UK’s vital museum sector.

Want to learn more about Art Fund’s recent report? Download the full report here.

About the author – Tim Deakin

Tim Deakin is a journalist and editorial consultant working with a broad range of online publications.

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