Museums Need to Be ‘the Openers of Doors’

A health officer attaching a mumps quarantine sign to the front porch of a house in Pennsylvania, c. 1920-1935. (Wellcome Collection/CC BY 4.0)
Embrace the spirit of Emerson and lead us out of lockdown.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE W e’ve experienced a heartbreaking 9,000 Chinese-virus deaths, three-tenths of 1 percent of the 2.9 million American deaths from all causes last year and 6 percent of the 120,000 influenza and pneumonia deaths last year. New York City is the center, overwhelmed by a mass health emergency that you’d think September 11 might have coaxed it to anticipate. So many heroes among doctors, nurses, cops, firefighters, and paramedics.

We also have at least 12 million newly unemployed, hundreds of thousands of small businesses on the brink, millions of terrified elderly and frantic breadwinners, millions of children out of school for months, almost all our economic activity aborted, almost every American a supplicant of the government, and $2 trillion in new debt. No modern economy, much less a booming one, has ever crashed by design. It’s the mother of all omnishambles.

And every museum in America is locked tight. Every performing-arts space is dark.

Last week, I wrote that museums ought to be among the first public spaces to reopen. Since then, many of my museum-director and curator friends tell me they don’t expect to be open to the public until late summer. Those who haven’t been furloughed now think they’ll stay on the payroll until then. Don’t be so sure. Trustees are drawn from the corporate jungle. The longer this mess goes on, the more tables of organizations will resemble skeletons, not opera singers.

In any event, closing for months is crazy. And irresponsible. Museums exist to serve the public.

They’re courting suicide, too. Don’t assume audiences will rush back. The longer this lasts, the more it will upend our habits. Most people really can’t work 40 hours a week from home. It’s not feasible. Of course, the millions canned from their jobs are in a different boat, of the Titanic variety. The ones who aren’t nursing their sorrows with booze or pot — deemed “essential consumer products” where I live in Vermont — are finding new ways to use free time. So is everyone else. They might like what they’ve discovered, and they might keep doing it.

The lucky souls among us still getting paychecks will have the disposable cash to buy theater or concert tickets and to make an annual fund or membership gift. The new “have nots” won’t. They’re frightened. Their wallets are in lockdown except for essentials. Owners of small businesses are using spare cash to stay alive. Many of these good people gave to museums, not four-, five-, or six-figure gifts, but they gave. They can’t and won’t now.

Many millions will develop symptoms not of flu but of agoraphobia. The random Millennial nut will hide under his, her, or gender-fluid their bed — safety’s a bigger obsession than sex — but it’s fear of big gatherings that will grab older people. That’s the museum and theater demographic. The longer these places are closed, the steeper the climb back.

Most museums are still dealing with a cash-emergency tsunami and layoffs of workers who, by and large, are at the low end of the salary scale. That needs to be their focus now. Very soon, though, the Association of Art Museum Directors, the American Alliance of Museums, and individual museums need to start planning for what they can do to open at the first starting bell. The National Endowment for the Arts needs to be part of this planning for museums and also the performing arts, which are devastated. Again, theaters won’t survive if people fear sitting next to one another.

Museums are, by nature, places where most people want space and can keep their distance. In a blockbuster — the Impressionist Gold of Ai-Weiwei-Tut kind of show — they can’t, but we can quickly open our museums’ permanent-collection galleries. Museums can control numbers at the door. There are many other ways to protect visitors and staff. The field’s leaders need to start developing protocols for a quick, early opening. This takes initiative and imagination.

Arts leaders among museums and libraries need to push the government to let them open soon. “We’ll open when everyone else opens” isn’t a good answer since “everyone else” includes more problematic places like restaurants, gyms, theaters, sports arenas, and pick-up bars. Obviously, the reopening of society will be sequenced, and museums and libraries especially should help lead the way.

A good example of a place that can reopen soon is the Clark Art Institute, where I was a curator. It’s on the border of rural southwestern Vermont and rural northwestern Massachusetts, about 20 miles from my home. There are almost no Chinese-virus cases in northern Berkshire County. In neighboring Bennington County, about 20 people in a population of 22,000 have tested positive for COVID-19.

Visitorship at the Clark this time of year is tiny. It’s a summer place, though this summer its attendance will probably be low. It’s a well-organized museum with a conscientious, gracious, unperturbable staff that can train for anything short of the Olympics. It’s got spacious galleries. Someone is going to need to show leadership. Museums like the Clark, opening at the earliest possible time, can cue other museums that it’s fine to get back to normal.

Many other small, quieter museums can open. College museums can reopen. Students aren’t there. School leaders abandoned them in a head-for-the-hills panic. It’s the least they can do.

Offer people masks. Squirt them with Purell. Do temperature checks. But open as soon as you can, bring back your laid-off staff, and welcome people needing the nourishment that art provides.

Arts organizations want a $4 billion bailout should Congress turbocharge the printing press again. No agency in the federal government is capable of spending so much cultural money. First, no federal agency has the sheer numbers of staff to administer a bailout. And $4 billion is more than ten times the combined NEA and National Endowment for the Humanities budgets. Second, government doesn’t know which theater companies, museums, symphonies, and opera houses are most stressed.

In any event, the Kennedy Center effectively gave this push the deep-six. It got $25 million from the big corona spend-a-rama and then fired its workers anyway. Arts relief instantly lost credibility.

The audience, including past honoree Tony Bennett, stands for the national anthem at the start of the Kennedy Center Honors event at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., in 2013. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Here’s an example of how dense the thicket of issues is. LA MoCA in Los Angeles terminated nearly all its staff. It has a $138 million endowment, reports say, but since the stock market has plunged 25 percent, its savings are surely less. But let’s say it’s got about $100 million. That’s not a lot for a museum, and I know taking 5 percent yearly in endowment income is the best practice.

That said, this is an emergency. The museum has cash in the bank. It can — might not want to but can — pay everyone’s salaries. Why not pull from the endowment? But is it a best practice for a not-for-profit to pay people to do nothing? Most of the nixed employees serve visitors who aren’t there. Who is covered by unemployment compensation, and who isn’t? These aren’t crazy questions.

The NEA and the NEH have already gotten $75 million each in relief money to distribute. I’m not sure why the NEH got money, since its grants generally go to scholars, colleges, libraries, and think tanks. They don’t need bailouts. The Institute for Museum and Library Services got $50 million. That’s a waste of money. They mostly help libraries affiliated with big institutions and museum conservation projects. Some of this one-shot money will go to state arts agencies. They probably have better intelligence on who is desperate, but they have tiny staffs, too.

The NEA has never given grants based on financial need. Of course, it should know who really needs money and who doesn’t, who has spendable backup cash, and who can raise money in a pinch and who can’t. But it doesn’t know, and it doesn’t want to. It’s wedded to a nice but not very appropriate notion that only merit matters. The government should not be giving money to places that already have a bundle.

By ignoring need, the NEA gives an edge to rich museums with big grant-writing operations and schmooze power. Money goes to places with rich donor bases and nine-figure endowments. All of this means less money for the museums that need it.

Left: Male Harp Player of the Early Spedos Type, 2700–2300 B.C., Cycladic. Marble. (The J. Paul Getty Museum).
Right: Recreation via Facebook DM by Irena Ochódzka with canister vacuum. (Courtesy Getty Museum)

In politics, there’s smoke-and-mirrors money, wasted money like cash for clunkers, dark money, and alt-money, which is an art unto itself and involves fungibles that can’t be traced, like liquor, stamps, and food. And then there’s buddy money, the kind you give to your besties. I hope these relief millions don’t turn into buddy money. I looked through the NEA’s grants for the past year. Arts organizations in the District of Columbia got a boatload of money, a stunningly out-of-kilter stash of cash compared with how much went to states with populations ten times the size of D.C.

In the latest round of grants, announced January 15, Washington, D.C., arts groups got a cool $1,145,000, about as much as Texas. California got $3,530,000. New York got $6,998,000. Itsy-bitsy Vermont, where I live, got $80,000. Connecticut, no slouch for culture, got $200,000. And so it goes.

And D.C. and its suburbs happen to be where the NEA is headquartered and where the staff lives. Just say’n. Buddies don’t get all the money. What they seem to get is a thumb on the scale.

If Congress turns on the spigot again, and the arts get big money, it has to go to those places pushed to the brink. Lobbyists and leaders need to be thinking now of criteria that make sense.

For martinets, mandarins, scaremongers, and snitches, these past few weeks launched a Golden Age. I’m very high on where we are in the arts, too, that is, until we slammed on the brakes. I don’t completely agree with Ross Douthat, who argues in his new book, The Decadent Society, that we in the world have grown slack, dull, and sexless, a malaise that often strikes the fat and prosperous.

That might be broadly correct, but there are so many good things happening in the visual arts, avant-garde dance and music, literature, and theater. Let’s get back on track sooner as opposed to later.

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