When former Walters Art Museum director Gary Vikan remembers the late 1990s, he gets a little wistful.
It was a time when as many as 600,000 people crowded through the doors of the city's two largest art museums each year. Local celebrities would hit him up for tickets. Airline employees checking him in for his flight recognized his name.
"Sometimes on Sundays, the galleries would get so full you could barely move," Vikan said. "It was fun while it lasted."
Twenty years later, the scene in Baltimore and nationwide is very different.
"You go into museums that have recently expanded, museums with these enormous spaces," he said. "And you see nobody in the galleries. Zero."
Annual attendance at the Baltimore Museum of Art has fallen 12.7 percent in the last 15 years. At the Walters, it's down 18.6 percent. Across the country, the National Endowment for the Arts reports, attendance at art museums dropped 16.8 percent — even as the population grew by more than 33 million people, and museums began offering free admission.
Foot traffic at art museums climbed steadily throughout the 20th century. Now, for the first time in modern history, it's falling. And the decline is expected to accelerate, a prospect that alarms museum officials.
"Society has invested billions of dollars in these museums over the centuries," said Michael Peter Edson, a longtime museum administrator. "If museums can't prove their ability to make a difference, then society will choose to place its resources somewhere else — and it should. There's a premium on urgency. We don't have 20 or 30 years to sit on the sidelines."
If every art museum in America were to shut down overnight, officials say, the impact would be staggering. That's not just because citizens would lose access to nearly 17 million cultural treasures spanning every known civilization. And it's not just because billions of dollars would vanish from the American economy.
What's at risk, museum advocates say, are the key survival skills, such as problem-solving and creative thinking, that exposure to the arts helps develop.
"If that happens, we will have abdicated our responsibility to help create better human beings with more resilient, flexible minds," said Edson, a co-founder and associate director of a forthcoming museum for the United Nations.
Museum directors have tried a range of approaches to replenish and reinvigorate their audiences, from mounting crowd-pleasing blockbuster exhibits to dropping admission fees. But none has found a miracle cure.
The National Endowment for the Arts reports that 18.7 percent of U.S. adults (or 45.2 million) visited an art exhibit in a museum or gallery in 2015. That was down from 26.5 percent of American men and women (54.3 million) in 2002.
Elizabeth Merritt, director of the Center for the Future of Museums, finds the trend "tremendously worrisome."
"Society has a vested interest in preserving our culture, our historic heritage and our art," she said. "That is part of what defines who we are. Museums help create society. They fuel innovation."
At the Walters, attendance has fallen 24.1 percent from a peak of 195,000 visitors in 2008, the first full year it offered free admission.
The Baltimore Museum of Art is just beginning to recover from a sharp drop after closing 60 percent of its galleries for a renovation starting in 2011. When the full museum reopened in the fall of 2014, attendance was about 180,000, down 36 percent since 2002. By the end of the 2017 fiscal year, attendance had climbed to 246,100 — about the audience for 2005, but still down from earlier years.
And at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture, attendance declined to 48,775 in 2017, or 53 percent below the opening-year high of 104,500 visitors.
Walters director Julia Marciari-Alexander is the mother of young children and says she empathizes with busy Baltimoreans who barely have time to do the laundry, let alone partake of the city's cultural offerings.
"For me, the repeat visitor is the most important visitor," she said. "I prefer to concentrate on the quality of the experience we're providing. I'm grateful rather than upset that almost 150,000 people actively choose to come to the Walters each year."
Merritt said museum exhibits often seem designed more for an academic audience than the general public.
"Traditionally, there's been a very small percentage of people who go to museums who are confident they're in the know and getting it right," she said. "I met a woman at a conference who told me: 'I have two Ph.Ds, and sometimes museums make me feel stupid.'"
During a recent visit to Baltimore, Linda Dreyfuss, her brother, Barry Brucker, and his wife, Sue Brucker, stopped at the American Visionary Art Museum, drawn by its quirky charm and lack of pretense. AVAM is the only Baltimore museum enjoying a long-term increase in attendance.
"It can be intimidating to visit a traditional, classical museum," Dreyfuss said. "You kind of feel like you shouldn't go there unless you've graduated from art school. You kind of feel like you have to be trained to look at the art."
If America's museums are having trouble changing the perception that they're upper-crust enclaves for a privileged and highly educated few, maybe it's because many began as warehouses to stash the private hoards amassed by wealthy industrialists. Those magnates include the father-and-son duo who founded the Walters Art Museum in 1934.
Most of the roughly 35,000 art, science and history museums in the United States were built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In exchange for what typically was free land, the tycoons were supposed to open their museums to the public. But at the time, "the public" often was defined as the educated and upper classes.
"In some Northeastern cities, you had to apply to be admitted to a museum," said Marjorie Schwarzer, author of "Riches, Rivals and Radicals: 100 Years of Museums in America."
"There were debates about whether museums should be open on Sundays when factory workers had the day off," said Schwarzer, a professor of museum studies at the University of San Francisco. "Museum directors did not want the unwashed masses coming into their buildings and looking at their artworks. They frequently complained not only of visitors touching the objects but of whistling, singing, nose-blowing, the spitting of tobacco juice on gallery floors and disruptions by unruly children."
If that sounds as paranoid as it is snobbish, it's because museum directors were supposed to safeguard civilization's treasures, many of which were ancient and fragile beyond measure. Before the era of custom-built, shatter-proof cases to house delicate artworks, alarms on every painting and vast online databases, the risk of works being stolen or damaged was far greater.
If exhibits grew increasingly cerebral, it's partly because museums took on the responsibility of conducting the scholarly research that in other fields is performed at universities. Unlike a concert or play, an exhibit can't just be entertaining to be declared a success; it's also expected to break new ground in art history.
"If museums would just lighten up and not be afraid to be funny and irreverent," Merritt said, "that would go a long way toward making them places where people feel they belong."
It wasn't just blue-collar workers who were kept out of museums during the institutions' early decades. They also tended to exclude people of color — especially in the Jim Crow South, where museums, like other public institutions, were segregated.
Christopher Bedford, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, thinks the attendance problem is a symptom of a broader failure. Museums have historically stocked their galleries with paintings and sculptures created by dead, white Europeans, he said, though the communities in which they are located are increasingly multicultural.
"Unless we change our core acquisitions, exhibitions and public programs, our visitation rates are likely to remain static," he said. "Traditionally, we have not been speaking to our core constituency. You can't expect a population who hasn't seen your institution as relevant to come to your museum. You have to make an effort to break down your own walls."
Museum attendance grew rapidly through much of the 20th century. It peaked in the 1990s, when up to 40.8 percent of U.S. adults reported having visited an art museum, according to the National Opinion Research Center. The nation was enjoying a period of unparalleled prosperity, the population exploded and the government provided funding for the arts.
Developing an appreciation for culture was considered key to upward mobility, Schwarzer said. It wasn't that long ago that museums attracted crowds whose size and passion rivaled those of football fans.
When "The Treasures of Tutankhamun" exhibit toured the United States from 1976 to 1979, art lovers camped outside art museums hosting the exhibit for entire weekends. More than 8 million visitors snapped up pricey tickets to see the youthful pharaoh's gold burial mask and other precious items taken from his tomb.
But government funding for the arts plummeted — the national endowment's budget was cut in half in 1995 — and Americans have lost interest in "bettering" themselves through art appreciation. The technological boom that brought devices such as tablets and smart phones increasingly gobbled up leisure time, and the hordes that had once thronged museums dissipated.
According to the endowment, attendance increased between 2002 and 2012 for just one age category: Americans 75 and older.
Merritt is emphatic: Museums need to come up with a working strategy to engage a new audience — and fast.
"Demographic trends are pretty inexorable," she said. "They are reliable enough so you can make forecasts and projections. The museum audience is aging. Unless we do our jobs better, attendance is going to continue to decline."
The Baltimore Museum of Art (dropped admission fees in 2006)
2002 — 282,000 visitors
2005 — 243,500
2008 — 268,000
2017 — 246,100
The Walters Art Museum (dropped admission fees in 2006)
2002 — 182,000 visitors
2005 — 133,500
2008 — 195,000
2017 — 148,000
The Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture (opened in 2005)
2006 — 104,500 visitors
2009 — 51,000
2017 — 48,775
The American Visionary Art Museum
2002 — 48,500 visitors
2008 — 67,850
2017 — 116,664