As cultural institutions reopen across the United States, with new coronavirus protocols in place, many have been looking to Europe, where many museums have been open since May, for a preview of how the public might respond to the invitation to return. So far, there’s little reason to be optimistic.
Almost all European museums are suffering from visitor losses, but their ability to cope depends almost entirely on how they are funded. Institutions supported by government funding are able to weather the storm with a little belt-tightening, while those that depend on ticket sales are facing tougher choices. Many are laying off employees and restructuring their business models.
Visitor information from across Europe tells a fairly consistent story: Museums that have reopened have about a third of the visitors they had this time last year. The Louvre in Paris reports about 4,500 to 5,000 visitors a day, compared with about 15,000 a year ago. The State Museums of Berlin, a group of 18 museums in the German capital, reports about 30 percent of its usual attendance.
Others are faring worse. The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam is down to about 400 visitors a day, when it used to welcome 6,500. “It’s really very, very quiet in the museum,” said its director, Emilie Gordenker.
Travel restrictions and border closings have dramatically reduced the numbers of international tourists in European capitals. Over the summer, institutions in the Netherlands reported a boost in tourism from neighboring Belgium and Germany. That waned again when the school year started in September, and a surge of new coronavirus cases in the Netherlands led to “code red” alerts in several Dutch cities, including Amsterdam.
European governments support many national cultural institutions, but there is a broad range of business models across the continent, from privately established museums that receive virtually no government money to those that are wholly subsidized by taxpayers. In recent years, however, governments in many countries, including the Netherlands, have been cutting support of museums, as politicians have encouraged the “American model” of funding, with more reliance on earned income.