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An impact report from UNESCO and the International Council of Museums estimates that, based on the 85,000 museums forced to close worldwide because of the COVID-19 pandemic, as many as 13% may never reopen.

"The report from UNESCO is certainly sobering," Lauren Lessing, the director of the University of Iowa's Stanley Museum of Art, wrote in an email to the Press-Citizen. "As an academic museum, the Stanley is in a different position from most other museums in that — like the UI libraries — we support the core research and teaching missions of the university, and we do not depend on ticket sales to do this crucial work."

Construction is still underway for the UI's new Stanley Art building. Construction on the $50 million building began in June 2019 and — if it holds to its 22-month construction schedule — will open in 2021.

More: Iowa state historical organizations begin to archive COVID-19 pandemic

In the meantime, Lessing said she has been working to create "a directory and inclusive network of the nearly 1,000 art museum directors in the United States" for the purposes of sharing strategies and information.

"I believe that, as a better-connected field, we will be able to conserve resources as we broaden our reach, deepen our impact, and make the art that we exhibit accessible and relevant to more people," Lessing wrote. "At this pivotal historical moment, this work is more urgent than ever."

Visitor dollars still key to some museums

More reliant on visitor dollars are sites like Des Moines' State Historical Museum or the Davenport's Figge Art Museum. To help sustain such in-state entities, Susan Kloewer, administrator for the State Historical Society of Iowa, has been leading conversations with museums on a state level.

"Our museums are challenged," Kloewer explained. "Even if you reopen, there is a significant reduction in ticketed events."

While Kloewer pointed out many museums are likely better equipped than venues like opera houses or concert halls to handle the effects of COVID-19 — given the control museum staff have over how visitors move through their buildings and exhibits — the industry still faces a struggle.

Kloewer pointed to a more recent national survey from the American Alliance of Museums, which suggested more than 30% of U.S. museums could be forced to close in the wake of the pandemic.

"Museums are still laying staff off," Kloewer said. "Some museums have great endowments, but when it comes to such a hit to your (ticket sales) revenue ... it's still not replacing dollar for dollar what your budget originally was."

Figge Art Museum celebrates anniversary amid pandemic

Aspects of that struggle have not escaped the Figge Art Museums, which, according to Executive Director/CEO Michelle Hargrave, has seen just 15% of the foot traffic it would generally expect by this time of year.

"We have timed entry for our visitors and reservations are encouraged, though not required," she explained. "We do have a cap on how many people can come into the museum for each (two-hour) time slot ... we close after each two-hour slot for cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting."

In spite of the pandemic, Figge has still managed to celebrate its 15th-anniversary, starting Thursday, with almost 20 largely online events extending over the coming two weeks. These include virtual performances, at-home activities, digital tours and more available on the museum's website.

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Furthermore, the Figge was fortunate enough to pay off its mortgage earlier this year and — with PPP and some emergency grants from the Department of Cultural Affairs — has thus far been able to stay budget neutral for the year and has reportedly not had to lay off any staff so far.

"We're not sure how it's going to look next year, so we're being fairly conservative in our planning," Hargrave said. "Going forward, we've learned to be much more adaptive and ready for uncertainty."

As Kloewer pointed out, though, the future can still be difficult to plan for, especially given the current circumstances.

"Even if you follow the best practices, how do you budget for a pandemic?" she said. "As museums reach the beginning of their fiscal year, I think there's going to be a lot of hard conversations."

Isaac Hamlet covers arts, entertainment and culture at the Press-Citizen. Reach him at ihamlet@press-citizen.com or (319)-688-4247, follow him on Twitter @IsaacHamlet.

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