The coronavirus pandemic is such a big challenge that most of Pittsburgh’s arts groups have never faced. But as the performing arts companies are just starting to resume indoor performances, in person, many of the city’s museums say attendance has been rebounding for months.
Take the mattress factory. Like all other museums, the North Side showcase for installation art went dark for several months at the start of the pandemic, and then for a few more months last winter, both times due to closures imposed by the state. Like most sites, it worked to engage customers with virtual programming and enlisted help from government pandemic programs.
At the end of last year, said executive director Hayley Haldeman, the Mattress Factory was forecasting in-person attendance for 2021 at 55% of its all-time high, before the 2019 pandemic, when it drew 58,000 visitors.
The museum reopened in February. In June, it far exceeded expectations. And the visitors kept coming in. “Our three-month average, June through August 2021, actually represents 95% of our stake in 2019,” said Haldeman.
The Carnegie Museums in Pittsburgh tell a similar story: Summer attendance has exceeded its own projections. “July was one of the strongest July we have ever seen,” said Museums President and CEO Steven Knapp. He said the Art and Natural History Museums, Andy Warhol Museum and Carnegie Science Center together hoped to attract 88,000 people this month, but instead welcomed 97,000. The August screening of 68 000 was also surpassed by actual footfall, 74,000. So far this year, the four sites have drawn 96% of what they expected, Knapp said.
The Heinz History Center recorded less than half of its average annual attendance for the year ending June 30, spokesman Brady Smith said. But the Strip District location may also have turned a corner. “We’ve had a really strong summer,” said Smith. He said attendance for the months of July and August was 30% above the historical average.
The numbers are not universally so rosy. At Frick Pittsburgh and the Westmoreland Museum of American Art, for example, summer attendance, while well ahead of visitors in 2020, was well below pre-pandemic levels. The August Wilson Center for African American Culture welcomes around 80 clients per month this summer, up from around 200 in 2019, spokeswoman Cydney Nunn said in an email.
Additionally, a few sites noted that attendance leveled off or even declined in August, around the time COVID-19 cases started to increase.
Still, the trends looked promising. The Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens continued to operate with a scheduled ticket office and self-imposed capacity restrictions – currently, a maximum of 75 visitors per half hour, spokesman Joe Reed said. However, “on the weekends we fill almost all the time slots,” he said. That equates to just 4% fewer customers than Phipps could accommodate under normal circumstances, he said – although that’s 39% fewer than one would expect for one of his big shows. , like the current Summer Flower Show, “The Hidden Life of Trolls.”
Museums have also cautiously resumed hosting in-person events. Some are outdoors, like the Carnegie Museum of Art’s Inside Out performance series. Others are rentals, like weddings postponed earlier in the pandemic.
A few museum administrators have said that the safety precautions related to COVID-19 have in fact resulted in unexpected benefits for customers. For example, the mattress factory kept the timed ticket booth, which helped avoid large weekend crowds that could make it difficult to appreciate room-sized facilities. “We are finding that the traffic has dispersed more evenly than we have ever seen in the past,” said Haldeman.
What all of this means for museums varies considerably financially. For free entry venues, like Westmoreland and the August Wilson Center, the drop in admissions does not hurt the bottom line (although the loss of rental events and gift shop sales does). Grants and donations make up the vast majority of their income.
The mattress factory, on the other hand, relies on earned income for 45% of its budget, and almost all of that comes from paid entries. “This is why COVID for us has been such a success,” said Haldemann.
This is also why the feedback from customers is such a relief.
At Carnegie Museums, entrance revenues actually exceed budget, Knapp said. This is because a higher proportion of customers are paying full price, rather than buying subscriptions with unlimited participation.
The History Center attributes its increased traffic to both “pent-up demand” and an increase in out-of-region visitors taking “single-tank trips,” Smith said.
Still, no one knows what the next phase of the pandemic will bring. “We hope despite the figures [of COVID-19 infections] on the upside, the trends will continue into the fall and through the holiday season, ”said Smith.