News ID: 275771
Published: 0338 GMT October 20, 2020

Europe’s museums are open, but the public isn’t coming

Europe’s museums are open, but the public isn’t coming

By Nina Siegal*

Visitors to the Rijksmuseum’s vast, vaulted galleries of Dutch old master paintings can feel as though they’ve got the whole place to themselves these days. Before the pandemic, around 10,000 people used to crowd in each day. Now, it’s about 800.

In theory, even with strict social distancing guidelines — visitors must book ahead, wear a mask, follow a set path and stay at least six feet apart — the Dutch national museum could accommodate as many as 2,500 people a day. But the public isn’t exactly jostling for those limited tickets.

Across town, the Hermitage Amsterdam museum has extended an exhibition of imperial jewels from the Russian state collection that was attracting 1,100 visitors a day last year. Now, the museum has limited daily ticket sales to 600, though it’s only selling about half.

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.

The Rijksmuseum and the Hermitage Amsterdam, less than a 10-minute bike ride from each other, represent two points on that spectrum. While the Dutch national museum receives one-third of its financing from the government, the Hermitage, a private initiative, has no government subsidy, and relies on ticket sales for 70 percent of its budget.

Several European countries — including Britain, France, Germany and the Netherlands — have already announced government bailout packages for the arts. But many local institutions are still projecting shortfalls.

*Nina Siegal has been a contributor to The New York Times from Amsterdam since 2012. Her specialization is fine art, including art theft, forgery and World War II art restitution issues. The article was published in The New York Times.


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