For more stories about the effect of COVID-19 on museums, please visit the Prairie State Museums Project at PrairieStateMuseumsProject.org.
ROCKFORD — For years, Carrie Johnson wanted to make admission free at the Rockford Art Museum.
"Admission has never been a big part of our revenue stream," said Johnson, who began working at the museum in 2006, became curator in 2012 and finally took over as executive director in December.
"It was in my five-year plan to make the museum free admission," said Johnson, a Rockford Guilford graduate who earned a bachelor's degree from Columbia College in Chicago in 2001. "We need to break down any barriers keeping people from enjoying art."
The coronavirus pandemic caused her to speed up that timeline.
Along with 85,000 other museums worldwide, the Rockford Art Museum was shut down because of the pandemic that is wreaking havoc on the worldwide economy. Johnson and her staff spent the nearly four months that the museum was closed working on procedures, future plans and social media.
"Our staff got together and said 'We're not going dark,'" Johnson said. "We did a lot of videos. We stayed really active on social media. We made sure that our messaging was that we'll be back."
On Monday, they were back as the museum opened its doors for the first time since the state mandated closing in March. Johnson used Facebook to do an online fundraiser to raise enough money to ensure anyone who wants to visit the museum this year can do so free of charge.
Art museums in general don't have many of the concerns facing other museums in a post-COVID-19 world. Patrons aren't allowed to touch the art. The museum is encouraging visitors to view art on display by following a designated path throughout the museum so as to minimize personal contact. Museum employees are cleaning the gift shop frequently, and door handles will be sanitized every hour.
Art museums generally have struggled to engage younger audiences at a time when so many art images are available online.
Nationally, at least until the pandemic, art museums were holding their own. The National Endowment for the Arts surveys art museum attendance every five years. In its 2017 survey, 24% of adults in the U.S. had visited an art museum or gallery. That was up 3 percentage points from 2012. It marked the first time since the NEA launched the survey in 1982 that art museum attendance didn't decline.
Locally, the numbers haven't been as positive. Rockford Art Museum's attendance fell from 38,922 visitors in 2015 to just 13,691 in 2019, according to the Rockford Area Convention & Visitors Bureau. According to the museum's tax filings, which are available on Guidestar.org, the museum lost money in 2015, 2017 and 2018. The 2019 figures aren't available.
Clearly, Johnson had work to do when she took over in December.
"Primarily, the biggest way we generate revenue is through our special events," Johnson said of happenings such as Art X and the Greenwich Village Art Fair.
"Greenwich has been going on for 72 years. If necessary, can we make it a virtual art show?" Johnson asked. "That would make it more accessible to artists who can't come for a whole weekend. These artists have lost so many shows. We need to help them survive."
With coronavirus cases rising in popular vacation states such as Florida, Texas and Arizona, Johnson and her staff decided quickly to make both events online only. Art X was rescheduled for July 17. Greenwich will take place on its original dates, Sept. 19 and 20.
"We're thinking about a Plan B for everything," Johnson said.
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