MANY MUSEUM-GOERS are accustomed to queues and crowds. In peak season the lines at the Louvre in Paris or the Accademia Gallery in Florence can be hours long; once inside, visitors must compete with hordes of fellow enthusiasts to catch a glimpse of the Mona Lisa or Michelangelo’s David. If you’re lucky, you may get to admire the work for 30 seconds before another art-lover, or a harried member of staff, ushers you along.

Such jostling is now a distant memory: like many recreational venues, galleries around the world have fallen quiet owing to covid-19. An annual survey published on March 30th by the Art Newspaper documents the toll the pandemic has taken. In 2019 the 100 most popular art museums globally enjoyed more than 230m visitors; in 2020 that figure fell to 54m, a drop of 77%. Cultural institutions were closed for much of the year by lockdowns, yet even when they could reopen, social-distancing measures limited them to 20-30% of their usual capacity. Not surprisingly, museums in places where the virus was managed most effectively suffered smaller decreases. Yet they still suffered. In Australia and New Zealand, museums attracted 53% fewer visitors in 2020 than in 2019. In North America and Europe, decline was far sharper: 75% and 72% respectively.

Museums often rely on ticket sales for income, so covid-19 dealt them a severe financial blow. At the Louvre, receipts fell by more than €90m ($106m) in 2020; at the Tate museums in Britain, where general admission is free but special exhibitions are money-spinners, sales dropped by £56m ($78m) or 60%. A recent survey by the Network of European Museum Organisations, an industry group, found that 70% of its members expect to make budget cuts in the coming years, even in countries where culture enjoys considerable support from the state.

In America the Association of Art Museum Directors, another industry organisation, has relaxed its rules on “deaccessioning” (ie, selling art from a museum collection) until April 2022 in order to help venues survive. It used to be that museums could only remove and sell items from their collections in order to buy other art; now the proceeds can go towards the “direct care” of the work. That has meant that bodies have sold notable pieces to raise funds to pay staff, among other things. The Brooklyn Museum is putting several works up for auction in hopes of raising $40m for an endowment: one sale at Sotheby’s in October, which included a landscape painting by Claude Monet, raised $19.9m.

Larger institutions should be able to weather the storm. Smaller, newer ones may not be so lucky. A study of 95,000 institutions by UNESCO, the cultural arm of the United Nations, suggested that 13% may never reopen.