How Museums are Adapting to the Global Pandemic, with Erika Sanger

Episode 195

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Sanger is the leading ambassador and advocate for museums in New York State. She produces programs that promote best practices and deepen connections with members and constituents. She also seeks out new programs and funding opportunities for museums and the organization; maintaining and developing relationships with stakeholders including museum professionals, industry partners, state and federal funding agencies, private foundations, local, state, regional, and federal government officials, and leaders of peer institutions and arts organizations. Sanger created a state-wide partnership with Smithsonian Institutions Museum and has doubled organizational membership and income for the Museum Association of New York State. She has been instrumental in legislative initiatives to secure new state funding sources for museums. Destination on the Left is joined again by Erika Sanger, Executive Director of the Museum Association of New York State. She made her first appearance on Episode #25, where she talked about the role of museums in New York State’s tourism and economic development. But a lot has changed since then. On our podcast, Erika discusses the different ways in which museums continue to innovate and change to meet visitor needs during the pandemic. From online and virtual programming to redefining the physical spaces, this part of our industry is doing everything possible to adapt.

What You Will Learn in This Episode:

  • Erika’s role as the Executive Director of the Museum Association of New York State
  • How the changes Erika’s organization has made over the last several years prepared them to pivot during the pandemic
  • How Erika has helped and supported other members of her industry throughout the pandemic
  • Which museums and members have taken the largest hit from the pandemic, and how that will impact them moving forward
  • The silver linings to the global pandemic and its impact on museums
  • How museums have leveraged different platforms to create a profound virtual experience for visitors to enjoy at home

The Museum Association of New York State

Erika Sanger is the Executive Director of the Museum Association of New York State. She made her first appearance on Episode #25, where she talked about the role of museums in New York State’s tourism and economic development. But a lot has changed since then. On our podcast, Erika discusses the different ways museums continue to innovate and change to meet visitor needs during the pandemic. From online and virtual programming to redefining the physical spaces, this part of our industry is doing everything possible to adapt.

Stretched Thin, But Still Fighting

It has been nearly six months since the global pandemic shut down our world economy, closed borders, and brought the travel industry to a complete standstill. We are doing everything in our power to keep up, and the levels of creativity and collaboration in the travel industry are evolving at an unprecedented rate. As the world slowly re-opens under limited circumstances, associations like the Museum Association of New York State are leading the charge, helping the struggling industry stay afloat and build momentum.

The Post-COVID Museum Experience

All of this change and adaptation begs the question, what will the post-COVID museum experience and landscape actually look like? With such a massive economic hit, many of the client-facing positions of the industry have been eliminated. We have lost so many future leaders of their respective fields, and the only thing museums can do is hope for more support and continue to be resilient. Increased social media presence, data collection, and a general pivot to virtual was the ultimate savior of museums at this time. They are creating the virtual mirror of the museum experience as we know it, and it has seen great success.

Nicole Mahoney: 00:17 Hello listeners. This is Nicole Mahoney, host of destination on the left. Welcome to this week’s episode, but another very dynamic guest Erica Sanger executive director of the museum association of New York state. Erica first appeared on this show on episode 25 in May, 2017. When we talked about museum’s crucial role in New York state tourism and economic development, we talked about how museums were changing the experience to be more appealing to visitors and how important collaboration and partnerships were to the ongoing success of museums and cultural institutions. I encourage you to go back and listen to episode 25 to learn more. A lot has happened since May, 2017, especially as we recorded this episode in July, 2020 in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, as you are about to hear, museums are continuing to innovate and change to meet visitor needs from online and virtual programming to redefining their physical spaces.

Nicole Mahoney: 01:20 This segment of our industry is moving at an unprecedented pace just to keep up. As this episode airs, we are nearly six months into the pandemic that shut down the world economy closed borders and brought travel to a stand still as our country and the world is reopening slowly and on a limited basis, many of the integral parts of the tourism industry, like our beloved museums and cultural institutions are stretched thin and struggling to survive. It is associations like the museum association of New York state that are helping to keep the struggling industry afloat and moving forward. There are silver linings, as you will hear my conversation with Erica, we also talk about the challenges, how museums pivoted during the shutdown innovations that are happening and what a post COVID museum operation and experience may look like. I hope you find this conversation to be straight forward, inspiring and thought provoking a little more about Erica saying, or before we get started, Erica is the leading ambassador and advocate for the museums in New York.

Nicole Mahoney: 02:28 She produces programs that promote best practices and deepened connections with members and constituents. She seeks new programs and funding opportunities for museums and the organization maintains and develops relationships with stakeholders, including museum professionals, industry partners, state, and federal funding agencies, private foundations, local state, regional and federal government officials and leaders of peer institutions and arts organizations. Erica created a statewide with Smithsonian institutions museum on main street program. And she has led the organization through an evolution that included doubling organizational membership and income and pivoted to provide legislative initiatives to secure new state funding sources for museums through her work. Erica says that the museum association of New York state was in a great position to help lead through the covert pandemic. And we talk more about that in our interview, but first I want to share this important message with you, Erica. Thank you so much for joining me. I am so glad that you accepted my invitation to have a second appearance on the show. And I know you’ve got so much to share, especially as we’re recording this in the middle of 2020, which has become definitely a year to remember, and when it’ll go down in the history books. So I’m really looking forward to hearing your perspective on what’s been happening, but before we get started, can you share with our listeners a little bit about the museum association of New York state and your role there and what you’ve been working on?

Erika Sanger: 04:06 So the museum association of New York, um, has been around since, um, 1961. We are one of the oldest and largest museum associations in the nation. We have over 615 members now, which are representing the 1400 museums in New York state. We, um, advocate for museums, we offer professional development opportunities and model best practices. Um, new partnerships have developed through the New York council on nonprofits, which allow us to share multiple resources with our members. And in the past few months we’ve been working really hard to compile and share as many resources as possible, um, for museums to operate appropriately and safely, um, in this pandemic situation.

Nicole Mahoney: 05:09 Yeah. And, uh, I’ve, I am one of your members, so I receive a lot of your communications and I’ve been seeing that come through and definitely been very helpful. And I’m looking forward to have, you know, hearing a little bit more about what you’ve been doing, but before we get into that, um, when you and I were just talking before I hit the record button, you had said to me, and I thought this was really interesting. And I thought our listeners, uh, my might learn from it that your organization has been going through a number of changes over the last several years. I think you said over the last four years or so. And you feel as if those changes have really actually prepared you to be able to, to handle this and support your membership. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Erika Sanger: 05:53 Oh, um, we migrated, um, web platforms and integrated our communications, our information and our financial transactions all onto one web interface so that we can now do everything that we do remotely. And it was very valuable in the last couple of years, as we, you know, frequently in the past, I’ve travel around the state, we could operate our, um, functionality and our administration and our finances, um, from anywhere we could get a secure wifi connection. Um, that position does when New York went on pause to be able to work from home, um, almost without a break. Um, so we got up to speed incredibly quickly, um, because we were, uh, because we operate across the state and we have board members in every region. We had been using zoom to communicate with all of our board members for over a year. So all we had to do was increase the capacity of our platform.

Erika Sanger: 07:08 And, um, I believe, you know, uh, we had over a hundred people on our first virtual meetup call on March 20th and, um, have reached like 2200 people in 12 sessions over the last, um, over the last few months. So, um, taking small steps and doing it very quietly behind the scenes and getting ready to, um, be a better statewide organization actually positioned us, um, well in these sad circumstances. So yeah, absolutely. As we were also talking before we hit record, we were talking about how busy you are really supporting the industry. And, and of course this is when they need, you know, your organization the most. I’m wondering Erica, if you can talk a little bit about, you know, the impact that’s happened on museums and arts and cultural institutions as a result. Sure. Um, so when museums started closing their doors on March 13th, um, it was an immediate loss of two thirds of earned income revenue, um, from special events to admission, to any kind of real earned income opportunities dried up immediately.

Erika Sanger: 08:37 Um, we are estimating that, um, as of mid-March museums in New York state have lost $500 million. It is a loss that will take years to make up. Um, the, uh, we’re in the middle of a second impact survey. Um, we know that about 45% of new York’s museums have reopened at a 25% capacity. Um, we know that 40%, um, have not yet opened with plans to, uh, open throughout the fall and another 15% have no plans to open this year at all, waiting into next spring to open. Um, so that is a tremendous loss of economic impact, not only to museums, but to the state as a whole, you know, and to our tourism industry. Um, we know that about 60% of our museums receive some kind of emergency funding and those that did receive funding about 90% of those did receive PPP loans, but those loans have run out.

Erika Sanger: 09:47 Um, and so we are estimating that we’re seeing between 12 and 15,000 layoffs in the arts and cultural and museum sector in New York state. It’s a very large percentage of people. We also know that unfortunately the national projection is that 15, 16% of our museums will not be able to open again right now in New York, we’re looking at closer to 20%. Um, so it’s, it’s, um, we have a very, um, steep curve now to reopen and become economically viable and sustainable to, to where we were the, we might have the mountain of the pandemic behind us, but we still have a very large mountain to climb to get back to where we were before the pandemic hit. So,

Nicole Mahoney: 10:44 Yeah, and those are some, some big, big numbers. And of course, you know, like all of us, especially in the travel and tourism industry and the hospitality industry, uh, did not expect this to be our 2020, um, at all. Um, but as you had mentioned, you know, a little bit in your intro, um, as an organization, you’ve really been able to be a resource, uh, to your members. And I’m curious if you could share a little bit, you mentioned a few, you know, if the, um, networking type, uh, zoom meetings that you’ve done, but if you could just give our listeners some idea of how you’ve been supporting, um, the industry through all of this.

Erika Sanger: 11:29 Um, so all of our social media platforms that we’ve been pushing out information and collecting data and sharing that information back out, um, the numbers of people, um, that are engaging with us through our social media platforms is just phenomenal. Um, since the pandemic we’ve added about a hundred people a week through our LinkedIn resources and our LinkedIn pages alone, um, over 5,000 hits to the COVID-19, um, resource pages on our website, um, and the phone, um, it was nice. The phone has started to ring again, people are calling us. We also, um, started a partnership in, um, the middle of April with the Pomeroy foundation who created the Pomeroy fund for New York state history. And, um, we will, um, we’ve worked with Pomeroy and we’ll have given out, um, over $150,000 in grants to museums with, um, small budgets, budgets of $150,000 or less, by the time we get to the middle of October. And it’s probably, I would say, um, a little over a hundred of those museums has received, I have received funding through Pomeroy. So, um, we know that serving the field, not only by working with, um, a foundation to distribute funding, but just being there to share information with people, um, has, has made a difference.

Nicole Mahoney: 13:04 Yeah, absolutely. And, um, I also just wanted to give you the opportunity to talk a little bit about those layoffs that you mentioned. Cause I know that that, I mean, that’s a tremendous hit just in terms of, you know, folks in New York state who no longer have jobs, but also you had shared with me earlier that it’s, it seems to be a specific piece of the population too, um, who these are hitting the post and just kind of thinking forward and how that’s really going to impact the industry in the long run. So, um,

Erika Sanger: 13:40 I would say the vast majority of layoffs, um, are happening in what we would call the, the public facing parts of the museum because museum being closed, I have not been able to, um, deliver any of that functionality to their communities and their supporters and their stakeholders. So we know that for instance, um, large numbers of museum educators, visitor services, um, visitor amenities, staff kind of, um, visitor services staff have all taken the biggest hit. Um, in these, we know that in those areas, that that is where museums had done the greatest work in diversity equity access and inclusion over the last four years. So the pandemic striking at our budget, we have also let go the most diverse, most technologically advanced, um, the leaders of the future of our field are the ones who have been left on employed. And, um, what that is going to look like down the line. We, we don’t know, um, all we can do is hope that there’s additional federal funding, um, and that the federal funding will be more proportionate and will be more balanced to solve the issue. You know, um, there are an equal number of museum staff, people to people who work for the airline industry in our nation. And if you think of the amount of relief that was extended to the airline industry, versus the amount of relief that was allocated for museums, it is just insignificant and disproportionate to the impact that we make on our nation.

Nicole Mahoney: 15:43 I think that that’s such an important point, and I’m glad that you brought that up because, uh, although we can’t change, what’s already happened. It’s how we, you know, move through this, come out of this, where we focus our resources and our efforts, uh, on the other side. And I, I think that it’s, it’s great that we have, you know, that you have the awareness and that the, the industry has the awareness of this shift, that that happened as a result of the pandemic. And we do need to be focused on, uh, not just diversity and equity and inclusion, but also the future leaders. Um, you know, as you mentioned that the younger folks who would be coming up the ranks right, and would be leading the museums, the future. So that’s just a really great, great point. So I wanted to start with that question because let’s start with all of the, you know, challenges, you know, some of the depressing stuff that we’ve been living through, but I know there’s been a lot of good and a lot of innovation to resilience in the industry. And so I’m wondering if you can share some innovative ways that museums have adapted, uh, during this time.

Erika Sanger: 16:52 Sure. So, you know, we know that within the first month of closing, um, museums, um, increase their social media presence by more than 80%, you know, um, they were doing things differently. They were doing things that, um, took digital collection. You can call them digital libraries and, um, uh, the challenge spurred the creative nature of museum people, and they stepped up and they stepped forward. Um, for an article that I wrote that it’s going to appear in the New York history magazine, I did a little bit of research and, um, just on the hashtag museum from home, which is one of the hashtags that were used, um, by lots of museums to push out their social media contact. We know that, you know, the hashtag has 15,000 followers on Facebook and Instagram has 152,000 posts on LinkedIn. There’s 117 posts by museum professionals who are sharing what they did to take their content virtual, you know, during the height of the pandemic.

Erika Sanger: 18:03 Um, and that’s without even, uh, going into Twitter numbers, which frankly were impossible to count. So the, um, pivot to virtual, um, was really the foremost way that museums were able to go beyond and reach their audiences. You know, they did art making lessons and writing classes and storytelling, and, you know, cocktails with curators. Um, they digitally remastered archival films and shared them out for free on their website. Um, virtual tours of galleries that were close to the public. And, um, people stepped up who were not, um, in museum communications and museum educators, you know, um, museum security guards were essential personnel. And for many institutions, they were the only ones in the building for many months. And, um, the national cowboy museum, um, designated their security guard, named cowboy Tim, um, to do their Twitter feed. And, you know, someone who had never touched social media in their life started tweeting multiple times a day and it was fabulous.

Erika Sanger: 19:17 Um, so I think that is probably one of the primary ways we know that, you know, for instance, places like the New York state museum that has the beautiful windows, um, out on to the empire state Plaza, they’ve reactivated that space as an exhibition space. So you can stand outside and look into the displays. Other museums have re-installed their exhibits and have also, um, activated their outdoor spaces, the sculpture gardens, you know, doing new installations that way to just share their resources, however they could with their communities, um, at that time. So, yeah. Um, lots of, lots of ways. Um, because museum people are creative people, you know, at the heart of things. Yeah,

Nicole Mahoney: 20:07 Absolutely. And I just love all of those examples that you shared and, uh, so many good things from that. First of all, uh, you know, on the social media side, so museums, I imagine now have a broader audience, right? So when they are reopening, they have a larger audience that, you know, that they can speak to and hopefully that will eventually come to visit. Um, but also with the virtual offerings, uh, to me, that seems like there’s also more access for people to these places, which I think is, is really fantastic. And, and one of my favorite things is just that museums played such an important role during a time when we were all locked down.

Erika Sanger: 20:48 Uh, you know, you can only watch so many Netflix shows. Right, right. You know, I just love to see all that content that was out there that people could enjoy a bit of an uplift, you know? So, um, really being able to show off the importance of these institutions. Yeah. I think that, um, those who had invested four years in digitizing their collections were the ones that were able to move farthest fastest because of that investment. Um, and now this is also, you know, um, a wake up call to those institutions, um, and the funders, frankly, out there to see that the investment in digital infrastructure and making museum collections accessible in that space needs to be, um, the direction for the future along with reopening safely. Right. You know, we have to keep on moving on this track and not substitute one for the other, you know, the, the phrase that I’ve used for a very long time for those who know me is that many more people will never walk through your door then will ever walk through your door and you need to be ready to reach all of the people that you can.

Erika Sanger: 22:10 So, yeah, I think that’s true when you mentioned reopening. So I did want to talk to you about that. And then, and you had mentioned earlier that I think you said roughly 45% have reopened and another 40 are planning their openings, right. How are museums approaching a reopening and what types of changes are they making? So I think the majority of people that are reopening, um, are using timed entry is the way to really get people in. You know, so for instance, if we, um, look at the George Eastman museum in Rochester, they figured out that they could, uh, get 50 people in their galleries at a time so that you can purchase a ticket and you could go into the George Eastman museum along with 49 other people. And that would be the maximum, you know, in their spaces, um, smaller historic houses, um, who have figured out that it’s five or six people at their 25% capacity have been asking to book tours, an advance, um, in family groups or pod groups or groups of people who know each other.

Erika Sanger: 23:23 So that, um, groups of people who do not know each other would not be in the spaces at the same time. So I think that everyone is rolling out different ways, but the idea is to keep the spaces limited and controlled, um, also timeless. So these timed entries and then touchless, um, and touchless styluses. So we know that, you know, lots of museums that have interactive components in their galleries, when visitors come in, they’re getting a little styluses that they get to take home with them so that they can touch the computer screens with the styluses and not what their fingers. Um, we know that there are multiple daily cleaning going on. Um, and then it’s important for the visitors to know that these cleanings are happening, um, mask requirements. Absolutely. Right now it’s a law in New York state. You need to wear a mask.

Erika Sanger: 24:20 Um, so that, um, they’re doing that. Um, some people have marked out one way pathways through their galleries to control the flow that way. Um, and then I had talked about reinstalling. I know a museum that re-installed their galleries with the works of art six feet apart. So that, um, there’s no question about how far apart you are from someone. The paintings are six feet apart, you’re six feet apart. Um, so yeah, those are good changes. I also heard of someone, I haven’t seen it yet myself where, you know, I’m like buzzers that you get to hold in your hand when you’re waiting to find out if your order is at a takeout restaurant or wherever. So someone’s making buzzers on necklaces. So it’s like a radar sonar system, so that if you get too close to someone, your neck was buzzing. Um, I don’t know about that feels weird to me.

Erika Sanger: 25:18 People are being really creative. So these descriptions of, you know, these changes, are you hearing from the museums? How are their visitors feeling about the changes? Are they, you know, cause it’s gotta change the experience a little bit, but to me what you described, doesn’t change it too much. I mean, you know, a little, a little bit, but not that it’s really going to be that much of a different experience. Um, are they hearing reports back on that, for instance, when the metropolitan museum of art reopens, um, you know, probably, uh, I think they said, uh, end of this month, early next month, um, no, no tours, no programs or lectures, concerts. Um, the galleries will be open. So that part of the museum experience, if you’re, you know, someone who goes to the mat and gets a tour and goes in, here’s a lecture and spends the day there, it’s not going to be the same.

Erika Sanger: 26:20 It’s not going to be the same as, um, it was, there’s going to be plexi are going to be guided in one direction. Um, someone was saying that people are actually going through spaces a little more rapidly than they were before, because they don’t have to fight the crowds to see what they want to say, just see what they want to see. Um, it makes the, a little more exclusive than people like, because it does limit the number of people. And it also really has cut down again, going back to that earned income and the tourism revenue by two thirds, if not three quarters, as long as we are under the executive order to stay at 25% of occupation, then we are losing 75% of the revenue option.

Nicole Mahoney: 27:09 Right. Yeah. Yeah. That’s a really, really great point. So I know, uh, none of us have a crystal ball. Um, but I’m, I’m wondering if, you know, as you’re seeing all these changes, if you think any of these changes that have been made to the way museums operate, do you think any of these will still be around even post COVID?

Erika Sanger: 27:32 Yeah. I don’t see people rolling back from some of the virtual content that has been developed. I think that, um, now that we’ve kind of crossed the Rubicon, so to speak in terms of digital engagement, there’s a way that we can operate on both tracks simultaneously. Um, the investment has to be made the people who Excel with social media and digital communications need to be prioritized within the institutions. Um, but there’s no reason for someone to stop sharing their content virtually if the funds are available to invest in that kind of outcome.

Nicole Mahoney: 28:17 Yeah. Very, very good point. And do you think that there are, I believe that in everything we can find a silver lining and I do think that there already are some silver linings. We talked about some earlier, you know, um, the broader audience, um, uh, the way these virtual, um, exhibits, if you will providing more access and really how museums have kind of shined, uh, as a, as a bright light, a little bit during the pandemic. Um, and I’m just curious, uh, what kinds of silver linings are, are you taking away from this? Are you saying for your members? Sure,

Erika Sanger: 28:56 Sure. I think that at any time you have a disruption in a business model, um, there are the opportunities to change what you do for the positive and that we hope that, you know, by not only changing the physical spaces to accommodate the new ways that we have to interact with our public, that museums will also think about the ways that they work with their staff and the ways that they work with their audiences to become more inclusive and to reflect their communities in a different way, you know, to take advantage of what we have been given and, you know, internally and externally into examine policies and procedures to change and be ready, frankly, you know, New York is one of those States that by the year 2030, we will tip over into what demographers call majority minority. And it’s important for us that we be prepared to welcome everyone who calls New York and America home.

Erika Sanger: 30:11 So I would like to see that take precedent and the way people think about museums and community. Absolutely. And you’ve been exploring this for quite some time, even, even before 2020. Cause I was, yeah, I know I attended your conference that was focused all about that. Um, which was fantastic. And again, really preparing your members for this time, um, to, to have that foundation and to be able to reflect on that, I think is fantastic. Thank you so much. And thanks for this opportunity, Nicole. Yes. I’m so glad that you joined us. So before we say goodbye, are there any final thoughts that you would like to share? And also if you could share with our listeners where they can find, uh, the museum association of New York. Sure. I would just say with the listeners go to your local museum, um, especially if you haven’t been recently, you’ll find a lot of good changes as people, um, have gotten ready to reopen, to welcome you and support your local museum and the ways in which they work with their schools and community centers and other kinds of partners.

Erika Sanger: 31:21 Um, and we are at, uh, N Y S We’re on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, um, and we’ve been recently publishing articles on, um, when gaining some followers. They’re so fantastic. Thank you so much, Erica. And, uh, I appreciate you taking the time and we will definitely check back in with you in the future. What’s her past all of this. Thanks so much, Nicole. Thank you for listening all the way to the end of this week’s episode. This gives me a chance to tell you about our weekly. I see. Why am I in case you missed it easy newsletter each week, along with our podcast episode, we share an article written by one of the break, the ice media team members about the travel and tourism industry, our articles mirror, the mix of industry segments and topics similar to this podcast to join our newsletter tax D O T L two six six eight six six, or visit break the ice forward slash blog.

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