Coronavirus Hits Museums

Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Photo: Douglas Mason)
Art’s in lockdown, budgets in extremis

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE A s far as I know, every art museum in the country is shuttered, a month ago as inconceivable as Martians landing. Laying aside lectures, openings, and school groups — all the good museum buzz — we’ve lost a space for contemplation, reverie, refreshment, and escape. It took the Blitz to close London’s museums. Aside from a day or two in New York after 9/11, we’ve always had art at the ready, almost anywhere. Yes, museums are virtual now, but that goes only so far. They’re all doing their best to stay visible.

For museum balance books, the losses are quantifiable. The Cleveland Museum of Art, as distinguished as they come, furloughed all part-time staff and cut non-hourly staff salaries by about 10 percent. Bill Griswold, its director, was straight with the staff in his grainy hostage-quality video announcing the chops. The museum isn’t getting any earned income. He’s brave and fair. At his place, everyone’s taking a hit.

The layoffs at Cleveland and most museums come from the ranks of guards and teachers and admissions, shop, events, and cafe workers. These workers handle visitors, and visitors are neither coming nor paying. Others are working from home, but that’s really not practical or productive after a few days. There’s one silver lining: Most museums cutting staff have pledged to rehire their people once the Chinese-virus crisis passes.

Cleveland Museum of Art (Rob Mueller. Courtest Cleveland Museum of Art)

The Metropolitan Museum of Art projects a $60 million revenue loss for this fiscal year, depending, of course, on the duration of the virus-driven suspension of life as we knew it. It’s paying its staff so far but has a sequenced plan of budget cuts should its doors stay shut after the first week of April into the summer.

The Met is more dependent than ever on admissions income, what museum professionals call “the gate.” For years admission was free, as the Met’s founders intended. Hungry for money and unwilling to tackle spending, the museum wiggled out of its free-to-all policy and imposed a whopping $25-per-head charge targeting tourists, and everyone not from New York counts as a tourist. Now, no tourists, no money. With a $3 billion endowment, though, the Met will be fine.

Anna Wintour announced that the Met will postpone its Fashion Institute’s annual gala, the art world’s glitziest and most lucrative fundraiser. In her statement, and in an awkward, self-indulgent non sequitur, she also endorsed Joe Biden, who is in lockdown. Maybe she’ll send him some mind-sharpening puzzles from the Met’s shop.

The lovely Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore is financially stable. Admission is free so the museum isn’t ruled by the gate. It’s keeping its staff whole. That doesn’t mean the place is flush. The Walters doesn’t have lots of backup cash. It planned cautiously over the years and, as a good citizen, doesn’t want to contribute to the unemployment problem in Baltimore. Its director and board are riding it out.

The Walters is in good shape not only because it budgets carefully. After the 2008 financial crisis, its board made strategic decisions that were both prudent and prescient. Rather than consider a new building project once the economy started to recover, the board did a fundraising drive to bolster its endowment. Its $30 million endowment campaign then is giving the museum an extra $1.5 million in annual revenue now.

I’m awed by this good judgment. The board could have taken the first-class-fare ego trip of a new wing. Instead, it put money in the bank. It’s the kind of common sense that makes my Yankee heart flutter.

The Cleveland Museum of Art has an $800 million endowment, which sounds like plenty, but a big chunk of its income must go to acquiring art. It’s a big-city museum, expensive to run under any circumstances, but it also has a new wing. New wings mean new operating costs. I suspect Cleveland was already on a budget knife’s edge.

The Bridle Path, White Mountains, 1868, by Winslow Homer. Oil on canvas. (The Clark)

Though I live in rural Vermont, I’m blessed with four fine museums within easy driving distance. The Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass., is riding out the storm, too. It charges admission, but attendance in the winter and spring is small, so the lost income isn’t a back breaker. The Clark also has a big endowment. It’s not reducing staff. The small, smart, scrappy Bennington Museum is far more dependent on its admissions and shop income. It doesn’t have a cushion, and there’s no blubber in its budget. Like many small places, it can’t tough it out. Southwestern Vermont doesn’t have lots of deep pockets.

Museums with a pulse are doing clever, new virtual programming. Certainly no one will go bored as we descend with abandon into a self-induced Depression and $2 trillion more debt. For instance, the director of the Birmingham Museum of Art led a charmingly homemade tour of the museum’s Wedgwood collection, the best in the world beside the company’s. I learned a lot.

The Bennington Museum’s new director has a fun online walkabout in the museum’s Grandma Moses gallery. Moses lived in Eagle’s Bridge, next to Bennington. Born weeks before Lincoln was elected and dying weeks before Kennedy’s inauguration, a dirt poor farmer’s wife who was the mother of ten children, she possessed the gift of perspective. The museum has a nice collection of her work housed in the one-room schoolhouse she attended. Profile-wise, it helps that the museum owns a big, accessible wildflower trail, which, as of this writing, remains open to the public. Unlike the British, Americans at least can go outside more than once a day without being followed by police drones as in the U.K.

Autumn, 1957, by Anna Mary Robertson “Grandma” Moses. Oil on pressed wood. (Bennington Museum Collection, Gift of Rachel Cottrell
Copyright © 2020, Grandma Moses Properties Co., New York)

Bennington and Birmingham are two of hundreds of museums hoping to stay visible and relevant. I don’t expect special online programming to draw crowds. It’s targeted at people who love their local museums. Out of sight, out of mind. Aside from delivering death, sickness, and joblessness, COVID-19 is a disruptor of habits and relationships.

The Williams College Museum of Art is part of a big, rich parent organization. Williams, where I went to school, could ride out a tsunami, even one that managed to get as far as the Berkshire Mountains. It closed shop for the rest of the academic year at the first dry cough, not even bothering to see how the crisis might develop. Teaching is online, and the tech-savvy college museum is working overtime to launch the art department and other departments on a new way of engaging students. College-wide, though, lots of luck if you’re taking a lab, theater, or fieldwork-oriented class.

I was struck speechless — a blue-moon event — when I learned that grades for the spring term are pass/fail. I guess when the going gets tough, the wussy lower the bar. Let’s push the students in our schools rather than send them an embossed invitation to coast.

Mass MoCA, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, is in North Adams, Mass., and is, improbably given its remote location, the biggest contemporary art museum in the world. It’s a thrilling, magical place with bleeding-edge art arranged in an old factory site covering dozens of buildings.

MoCA is an art museum, but it’s also a music, lecture, and theater venue. It’s an all-purpose contemporary culture hub, and that’s its identity. It also gets much of its revenue through ticket sales. Eleven of its events (concerts and comedy nights) are canceled — basically its entire spring season — wiping out 70 percent of its projected income. Most of the staff is furloughed.

It is as entrepreneurial as a high-tech startup and has just observed its 20th anniversary, having hit a high after some near-death moments. MoCA has grit, to be sure, but will grit be enough for museums with a robust money-making event component? Far from minimizing the seriousness of the Chinese virus — it’s calamitous — I wonder if a residual fear of crowds will throttle the eventual recovery of venues like theaters and concert halls.

It might very well. I read a March 24th study today probing public sentiment on post-lockdown visitation. Data from 2,300 adults suggest that sustained fear of the virus will, at least in the short term, scramble the use of leisure time. People who like botanical gardens and zoos seem keen to return, museum lovers a bit less inclined, and there’s a striking phobia about theaters, concerts, and movies. Hands-on activities will suffer. Pity the touch-based science or children’s museum. Demographics matter, a bad sign for opera, dance, and theater, which attract older crowds.

Almost all museums with temporary exhibitions are sharpening their juggling skills. First of all, museums have seasons. Most have a spring slot for exhibitions that run from late February or early March to mid May, and a summer slot running from June to Labor Day, plus or minus a few days.

Almost all American museums closed in mid March, so freshly opened spring shows hang unseen in empty galleries. Museums will try to extend these shows, but this will create the mother of all domino games. Setup for summer shows — crating, shipping, and installing — tends to happen in late May and early June. Will museums reopen by then, with staffs up and running? Suffice it to say that every museum is sequencing shows and loans anew, one work of art at a time.

Misery loves company. Museum endowments are torpedoed, the art market is paralyzed, and donors look at their portfolios and wail. It’s bad news, but far worse news unfolds minute by minute in hundreds of hospitals, thousands of sick beds, and in countless homes darkened by isolation and heartbreak.

I think museums belong at the vanguard of the new Great Awakening. Museums are communal spaces, but visitors mostly go for quiet contemplation. Most people go either alone or in couples. No one’s line dancing. Distance is a natural state.

When the COVID-19 pandemic ends, many people will feel squeamish about public places. Museums and libraries, opened in an early wave of back-to-normal, will have a mission beyond reflection and learning. Hey, I’m a doctor . . . of the Ph.D. ilk, so don’t ask me to amputate anything beyond a drumstick. Still, doctor’s orders — after weeks of a world quarantine and stresses to the soul, art will heal us. Let’s open the museums as quickly as we’re able.

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