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Visitors Are Returning To Pittsburgh Museums, Sometimes At Pre-Pandemic Levels

The coronavirus pandemic is as big a challenge as most Pittsburgh arts groups have ever faced. But while performance troupes are only just beginning to resume indoor, in-person performances, many of the city’s museums say attendance has been rebounding for months.

Take the Mattress Factory. Like every other museum, the North Side showcase for installation art went dark for several months at the beginning of the pandemic, and then for a couple more this past winter, both times because of state-mandated shutdowns. Like most venues, it worked to engage patrons with virtual programming, and sought help from government pandemic-relief programs.

Late last year, said executive director Hayley Haldeman, the Mattress Factory projected in-person attendance for 2021 would be 55 percent that of its record, pre-pandemic 2019, when it drew 58,000 visitors.

The museum reopened in February. By June, it was far exceeding expectations. And visitors kept coming. “Our three-month average, from June through August of 2021, is actually 95 percent of what our attendance in 2019 was,” said Haldeman.

The Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh tell a similar story: Summer attendance exceeded its own projections. “July was one of the strongest Julys we have on record,” said Museums president and CEO Steven Knapp. He said the museums of art and natural history, The Andy Warhol Museum, and Carnegie Science Center together hoped to draw 88,000 that month, but instead welcomed 97,000. August’s projection of 68,000 was also outdone by the actual attendance, 74,000. So far this year, the four venues have drawn 96 percent of what they expected, Knapp said.

Heinz History Center had less than half its average annual attendance for the year ending June 30, said spokesperson Brady Smith. But the Strip District venue, too, might have turned a corner. “We really had a strong summer,” said Smith. He said attendance for July and August was running 30 percent above the historic average.

The numbers are not universally so rosy. At the Frick Pittsburgh and the Westmoreland Museum of American Art, for instance, summer attendance, though running well ahead of 2020 visitorship, ran well behind pre-pandemic levels. The August Wilson Center for African American Culture is hosting about 80 patrons a month this summer, down from about 200 in 2019, said spokesperson Cydney Nunn, in an email.

Moreover, a few venues noted that attendance plateaued or even declined this August, around the time COVID-19 cases began to spike.

Still, the trends looked promising. Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens has continued operating under timed ticketing and self-imposed capacity restrictions — currently, a maximum of 75 visitors per half-hour, said spokesperson Joe Reed. However, “On the weekends we fill up nearly every time slot,” he said. That works out to just 4 percent fewer total patrons than Phipps might welcome during normal times, he said — though it’s 39 percent fewer than it would expect for one of its big shows, like the current Summer Flower Show, “The Hidden Life of Trolls.”

Museums have also cautiously resumed hosting in-person events. Some are outdoors, like the Carnegie Museum of Art’s recently wrapped performance series Inside Out. Others are rentals, like weddings postponed earlier in the pandemic.

A few museum administrators said COVID-19 safety precautions actually resulted in some unexpected benefits for patrons. For instance, the Mattress Factory has retained timed ticketing, which has helped prevent the big weekend crowds that could make it difficult to appreciate the room-sized installations. “We’re seeing that traffic dispersed more evenly than we’ve ever seen in the past,” said Haldeman.

What all this means for museums financially varies widely. For venues with free admission, like the Westmoreland and the August Wilson Center, drops in admissions don’t hurt the bottom line (though losing rental events and gift-shop sales do). Grants and donations make up the vast majority of their revenue.

The Mattress Factory, by contrast, relies on earned income for 45 percent of its budget, and almost all of that is from paid admissions. “That’s why COVID for us was such a hit,” said Haldemann.

It’s also why the return of patrons is such a relief.

At the Carnegie Museums, admissions revenues are actually running ahead of budget, said Knapp. That's because a higher proportion of patrons are paying full price, rather than buying memberships that come with unlimited attendance.

The History Center chalks up its increased traffic to both “pent-up demand” and an increase in visitors from out of the region making “one-tank” trips, said Smith.

Still, no one knows the next phase of the pandemic will bring. “We’re hoping despite numbers [of COVID-19 infections] rising, trends will continue into fall and into the holiday season,” Smith said.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: