Texas Museums: All Hat and No Cattle?

Amon Carter Museum of American Art Remington and Russell Galleries in 2019. (Amon Carter Museum of American Art/via Wikimedia)
Stop the talk and open up to the public.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE T he governor of Texas says museums there “can” open again, but some are dragging their feet. The Houston Museum of Fine Arts, the Menil Collection, the Dallas Museum of Art, the Kimbell Art Museum, Amon Carter Museum, the Museum of Modern Art in Fort Worth, and the big museums in San Antonio want weeks, maybe even months more, before they start serving the public again.

They’re waiting for all the experts, every last one of them, and everyone’s Ouija board to agree that opening is totally, absolutely safe, but life doesn’t work that way. Life’s a risky business, but they’re catering to all the alumni of Safe Space U among their staff. Where’s the Alamo spirit?

“We’ll reopen when and if it seems safe to reopen incrementally,” Contemporary Austin announced. “When and if?” Do they think they might stay closed until there’s not a coronavirus left on the planet? If they do, they’re no longer a public institution. Rather, they are an art warehouse and don’t deserve a not-for-profit tax exemption.

The Kimbell, a museum I adore, is “carefully considering when and how we may begin to reopen,” as if they’re planning something as elaborate as a moon launch. “Fort Worth, we have a problem,” and it’s navel-gazing.

South wing of the Kimbell Art Museum at dusk, Fort Worth, Texas, in 2011. (Carol M. Highsmith/Library of Congress)

The McNay in San Antonio, another lovely museum, sent me some poetic blather about its 66 years of providing “beauty, solace, healing, and transformation through art.” Its leaders understand that, “now more than ever, art museums around the world will play an integral role in the recovery of our communities from these unprecedented times.” So it’s formed an internal task force, which means it’ll open, oh, when I discover a Texas-size oil gusher in my Vermont back yard.

Weeks ago, I started hearing from curator and director friends that they don’t expect their museums to open until late summer. I wrote about this, calling it crazy. “We’ll reopen when and if it seems safe to reopen incrementally.” I’m not a psychiatrist, but I detect a bit of a smug, punitive, Puritan streak, like the governors who close their state beaches, even though no one has gotten coronavirus surfing, tanning, or building sand castles.

My previous two stories examined how the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Institute for Museums and Library Services are spending $200 million in COVID-19 relief money. I suggested some ideas and wrote about what I thought was effective and ineffective.

In reading of Texas museums’ foot-dragging about reopening, I’d suggest one more idea, or a simple question for grant applicants: “Tell us what you need to reopen to the public by June 1.” A one-page application with a one-page budget. It’s a good use for NEA’s money, and it preserves jobs. The best, quickest way to keep people in the arts working is reopening our museums.

If a supermarket paying its people $12 an hour can safely operate, so can museums whose directors, curators, and PR and fundraising flacks make multiples more. The chance of dying from coronavirus in Texas is about as great as getting trampled in a cattle drive at the Neiman Marcus perfume counter.

Texas — which, by the way, never totally shuttered its economy and trashed its tax base — has seen 782 Chinese coronavirus deaths in a population of 30 million people. That’s three deaths per 100,000 people, and it has three of the ten biggest cities in the country. Half of the fatalities were nursing-home residents. That’s far less than in every country in Europe. It’s less than in almost all the states that put their economies, tax base, hospitals, and small businesses in ICU.

Museums have had six weeks to plan to reopen. It’s not rocket science. What have the directors and building superintendents been doing since March 15? “We are working through various reopening scenarios,” Agustin Arteaga said. He’s the director of the Dallas Museum of Art. This isn’t the Normandy invasion.

We can’t live in a sanitized bubble. Museums should take reasonable, not extreme, steps to raise hygiene standards. Among their target audiences are the 98 percent of the public we now know have no ill effects from COVID-19 infection or who feel nothing more than cold-like symptoms. We’re at a point where we can make reasonable accommodations for the vulnerable, but we’ve already done the most extraordinary and, I’d say, the most reckless steps, like gutting the national economy when COVID-19 is mostly a New York and nursing-home crisis.

Once our open-to-the-public, not-for-profit places take reasonable safety precautions, it’s up to the vulnerable to judge how much risk they want in their lives. Crazy, universal confinement diktats can’t continue. We’ll destroy the tax base that pays for social programs and permanently destroy millions of jobs. Some people will need to stay home and enjoy the very good online programming that the Houston MFA and other places have developed.

Caroline Wiess Law Building of the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, 2011. (Wikimedia)

The Texas museums range from the very big — the Houston MFA — to the very small, such as the Menil in Houston and the Blanton in Austin. For each, the safety issues are the same. The differences are mostly in magnitude. The Houston MFA is dealing with multiple public entrances, for instance, though the big museums can easily open only one entrance.

Unfortunately, Harris County, where the Houston museums are located, has a new 29-year-old county executive, a Bernie Sanders spawn, and she’s incompetent, clueless, and extreme. Governor Abbott has overruled her dumbest edicts, but there she is. . . . The Houston museums have to deal with her.

The hygiene protocols are already done by European museums with initiative and imagination. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. I know the big American museums are corporate now, stifling, timid, and bureaucratic. They’ll want to hire expensive consultants to tell them what common sense would advise, and common sense is free. I found a sensible protocol that the royal museum system in Belgium is using. It’ll reopen in a few days. It’s online.

These steps were clear weeks ago and take no more than a few days to implement, with some Texas-style hustle. They’re straightforward and easy to implement. Install plexiglass screens protecting visitor-services staff and take credit cards instead of cash. Offer Purell at the front door — hell, there are probably donors who’d endow dispensing stations. I know people who’ve endowed closets and urinals.

Oh, and do something clever. Slap “Wash Your Hands or Else” on Warhol’s “Mao,” who looks like he was a tidy person, mass murderer though he was when it came to dissenters. He meant business, and there are plenty of dopes in America now who’ll take China’s word on anything.

Don’t use “Che,” whatever you do. He’s so grungy he’d need to go through a car wash to clean up.

Limit visitor numbers, suspend group tours, sanitize audio-tour gizmos after each use, offer masks, and establish special hours for the vulnerable, which supermarkets have managed to conceive and implement. Guards are already trained to monitor people’s movements in the galleries. A day’s additional training is needed. There’s camera surveillance. HVAC systems keep air as clean as air can get.

The back-of-house staff need to do their social distancing. If other back-of-house accommodations are necessary, like rearranging workplace seating, I’d propose doing them after the museum reopens. These aren’t the public’s concern.

I think people will come, in small numbers at first, but they’ll come, and they’ll behave the right way. The public’s done well, whether in badly hit New York, which needed to quarantine, or barely dinged Vermont, where people followed the rules, too. The public has taken personal responsibility, with tens of millions making enormous financial sacrifices as well as compromising their own health care by forgoing all kinds of surgeries, treatments for cancer, screenings, check-ups, and vaccinations.

New York museums need to do more, since about half of the U.S. COVID-19 deaths — that’s 50 percent — are in the New York area, with 5 percent of the country’s population. The Met, whose financial model assumes millions of admission-paying visitors, will need the kind of strict, extreme visitor-per-square-yard limits that will blow a big hole in its budget.

Left: The Men’s Bath, c. 1496, by Albrecht Dürer. Woodcut print. (Wikimedia)
Right: Female Bathers near a Fountain, 1730-1733, by Jean-Baptiste Pater. Oil on canvas. (Dallas Museum of Art)

This is a perfect chance for museums to do something truly radical, or truly reactionary. Just open permanent-collection galleries first. American and British museums have climbed on a rotating exhibition treadmill over the past 20 years, seeking crowds and forgetting their collections. The quietest spaces at the Met, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston are the Old Masters galleries. Since museums are going to feel broke for the next few years, they need to exploit their collections, which, after all, are the things that made them icons of learning, pleasure, and civic pride in the first place.

Most of a museum’s staff is office-bound as they’ve grown more bureaucratic. Staggering working hours is a silly idea. Museums, by the way, can’t make policies driven by the most neurotic among the staff. If some people are too frightened to work, that’s too bad. They need to deplete their accumulated sick and vacation time under the covers, then find jobs that indulge their standards, or seek a disability pension for mental impairment.

Museums are not-for-profits, which means they serve the public. They exist as places open to the public. If museums in Brussels, Berlin, and Rome can reopen, if the Uffizi is happy to reopen, then certainly museums in Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio can. Even the Forbidden City in China is reopening.

The big museums have a special obligation to open now to assuage the fear incessantly and unconscionably peddled by gleeful doom-mongers, fear that’s paralyzing society. They need to lead by example.

Staying closed insults the 30 million Americans who don’t have jobs as well as the Americans who supply our food, staff our hospitals, keep our drugstores open, and man our essential factories. There’s more than a whiff of snobbery in the delay, delay, delay crowd. “Oh, it’s fine for them to go to work . . . they’re the servant class . . . but I’m too precious for that.”

Well, Texas museum munchkins, put your teddy bears away and get out of your Little Red Riding Hood pajamas. It’s time to get back to work. If you can’t figure it out, I’ll chip in for a couple of cashiers from Kroger’s to show you how.

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