Local museums find ways to lure in visitors, return to pre-pandemic levels



When the COVID-19 pandemic forced cultural institutions to shutter for months in 2020, the Dayton Art Institute scrambled to keep staff on the payroll while maintaining and protecting the historic building and art.

During the global pandemic, museum staff seized the moment to tick away at ongoing projects in preparation for a day when visitors would stroll the galleries again.

“We asked ourselves, ‘How are we preparing?’” said Michael R. Roediger, director and president of the Dayton Art Institute. “How are we going to be ready to go when we reopen? Our staff had the opportunity to work on things we hadn’t been able to get to before.”

Credit: Jim Noelker

Credit: Jim Noelker

Fast forward to 2023. Nearly two-thirds of museums in the U.S. still haven’t returned to pre-pandemic attendance, but museums in the Dayton region report they’ve steadily seen attendance numbers recover to near pre-pandemic levels while they pivot to meet changing consumer trends and attempt to lay the groundwork for resilient financial futures.

On average museums across the country are averaging 71% of their pre-pandemic attendance, according to an annual survey from the American Alliance of Museums.

Some local museum leaders say they are surpassing this average — or even exceeding pre-pandemic attendance — though others are falling short.

“We are stable and looking good, but we’re generally always walking a fine line,” said Tracey Tomme, president and CEO of the Dayton Society of Natural History, which runs the Boonshoft Museum of Discovery among other historic sites. “Museums so often are dependent upon the generosity of donors and local funding opportunities to make things work, and those sources can always change year to year.”



National trends, economic impact

Natanya Khashan, senior director of audience development & engagement at the American Alliance of Museums, said AAM predicted in 2021 that museums would need at least 5 years to recover.

Attendance at museums in the U.S. is recovering gradually — a 10% average increase between 2022 and 2023 — but after the long-term impacts of the pandemic, it’s unlikely that museums would completely rebound in just a year or two.

“Museumgoers are expressing the reasons they are visiting museums less frequently than before the pandemic as the crowding of spaces and still being uncomfortable in large groups of people, personal health concerns, extreme weather, violence or crime concerns, and inflation and the cost associated with leisure time activities in general,” Khashan said.

Dayton area museums play an integral role in the state and local economy. Locally, 4,490 local jobs are impacted by arts and culture and $239 million of economic activity in Montgomery, Miami, Clark, and Greene counties stemmed from investment in arts and culture in 2022, according to the Americans for the Arts’ sixth iteration of its Arts and Economic Prosperity study, conducted in partnership with Culture Works and released last week.

Across Ohio, museums have a $1.54 billion financial impact on the economy, support nearly 26,000 jobs and $1.04 billion in wages, and generate $113 million in state and local taxes, according to the American Alliance of Museums.

DAI, Air Force museum

At the Dayton Art Institute, Roediger said the museum is hovering at around 68% of overall attendance compared to its pre-pandemic numbers — just below the national average. He added that the museum has seen a 25% to 27% increase in attendance of special exhibits brought into the museum since 2019.

The DAI most recently brought in a special exhibition on French painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. The international exhibition, “Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec: The Birth of Modern Paris,” brought in more than 10,000 visitors. DAI is the only North America stop for this version of the exhibit.

Louise Maurer of Enon visited the Dayton Art Institute Thursday. She made a New Years resolution she intends to keep this year: To visit an art gallery at least once a week. She had already hit galleries and museums in Springfield, Columbus, Cincinnati and The Contemporary Dayton.

Credit: Jim Noelker

Credit: Jim Noelker

“They foster creativity in individuals. They inspire creativity,” she said. “I don’t think I’ll run out of wonderful art to view and appreciate.”

Prior to the pandemic, visitation at the National Museum of the United States Air Force had been trending downward since 2015. Just before the pandemic hit, museum leadership drafted a plan to increase visitation including bringing in traveling exhibits, updating permanent exhibits, and developing a robust social media presence.

In 2023, visitation increased to 772,000 individuals — an increase from the 749,000 who visited in 2019.

Credit: Ty Greenlees

Credit: Ty Greenlees

“We really had already started thinking about this before the pandemic happened,” said David Tillotson III, director of the National Museum of the United States Air Force. “That positioned us well during that time.”

Boonshoft, SunWatch

Visitors to Boonshoft Museum of Discovery on Tuesday included families from Sydney and Lewsisburg with young children who conducted chemical experiments in the Do Lab and played with an installation that teaches about how water moves.



Museums like Boonshoft aren’t just educational, but play a role in the cultural lifeblood of a region like Dayton, Tomme said.

The Dayton Society of Natural History, the parent organization of Boonshoft and its sister organization, SunWatch Indian Village — a museum of the area’s 12th century Fort Ancient Indians — saw around 220,000 visitors at both locations annually prior to the pandemic.

“Then in 2020, we took a major hit, as most places did,” Tomme said. “We were closed for three months, our numbers dropped way down, our memberships dropped way down. But we’ve done a lot of revamping.”

By the end of 2023, memberships had returned to around 5,000, and total visitation surpassed 262,000 visitors.



She attributed this recovery to various factors, including revamped educational programs and increased school programs reaching almost 60,000 students. The museum also joined the “Museums for All” initiative, which allows those receiving food assistance to gain free or reduced admission to more than 1,200 museums throughout the U.S. The initiative resulted in an additional 35,000 individuals visiting Boonshoft and Sunwatch.

Support received through federal pandemic assistance was critical, and they are seeking additional tax credits. The future of museums like Boonshoft are dependent more on donations than admission revenue, she said.

“Support and explore local museums,” she said. “Good reviews matter. Local and state funding matters. Every donation helps move our institutions forward.”

Future plans

Tomme said Boonshoft’s plans include the continuous revamping of permanent exhibits, addressing deferred maintenance issues, and major renovations on the first floor.

The Dayton Art Institute announced earlier this month its traveling exhibition line-up for the year, highlighted by: The Artistic Life of Aka Pereyma; Riveting: Women Artists from the Sara W. and Michelle Vance-Waddell Collection; and a combination of two major traveling exhibitions, Merry Grinchmas: Art of Dr. Seuss’ Holiday Classic & (B)ART! America’s Funniest Animated Family.

Credit: Jim Noelker

Credit: Jim Noelker

Tillotson said the National Museum of the United States Air Force looks for traveling exhibits on topics including science that will pique interest in visitors who might not have an interest in the Air Force.

The museum is bringing “Dinosaurs in Motion,” a traveling exhibit geared toward families and children,in February through May. The museum also retooled its permanent galleries to expand its interactive components in order to let people touch and feel their way through the museum experience.

“You can go to all these museums and have an experience for the day,” Tillotson said. “It takes you out of your daily routine. Museums have a combination of entertainment and interest and broadens your perspective.”


$1.54 billion: Financial impact museums have on Ohio economy

100: Number of part-time and full-time staff employed at Dayton Art Institute

4,490: local jobs impacted by arts and culture institutions.

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