Why Museums Should Reopen Now: A Strongly Worded Heterodox View

Piranesi explored prisons of the mind, not real lockdowns. Pictured: Prisoners on a Projecting Platform, from Carceri d’invenzione (Imaginary Prisons), c. 1749-1750, by Giovanni Battista Piranesi. Etching, engraving, sulphur tint or open bite, burnishing; first state of four. (Metropolitan Museum/Open Access)
It’s time for key museum staff to push back against the apocalypse propaganda and get to work serving the public safely, like all the other people who can’t work via Zoom.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE I ’m irritated. I’m an art critic with an unorthodox point of view, so that’s not surprising. And my husband, who knows me best, would agree that my capacity to irritate ranks with the sun’s to warm. One much-adored friend, who’s known me for 30 years, said I was smug in my COVID-19 coverage. Another said I was too political. Why am I writing so much about it, anyway?

Well, it’s the biggest story of the year, and if there’s an angle, I’ll write about it. It’s certainly the biggest art story of the year. A toxic trio of government, press, and public-health bureaucrats — incompetent on nearly every level — fused its few remaining strands of skill and cunning to nuke the art world. Every museum and theater in the country is closed. Art finances are in the ICU, which Mr. Deficit, if he were in Vermont, would share with exactly zero COVID-19 patients.

Smug? Well, Since it’s Memorial Day weekend, I’ll tell you that I’ve selected my tombstone and epitaph — yes, I’m concerned about afterlife aesthetics and, yes, I plan ahead, and, yes, though I know my risk of dying from COVID-19 are the same as getting hit by a farm tractor falling from the sky, die I will, someday, somehow. Unlike the nuts who want a guarantee of safety, everywhere, anytime, I know that humanity exists on the edge of a cliff, always, and I have a sane attitude toward risk. I said “sane.” I’ll pass on skydiving lessons, which, by the way, are banned in Vermont. “Might spread the virus,” our masters would say. Those damn droplets, they’re like bombs in the Blitz.

Back to my demise. My tombstone is Danby Imperial marble, Vermont stone from the country’s marble capital, as fine as Carrara marble. It reads: He Knew He Was Right. I’ll leave the asterisk “on most things, most of the time” unwritten. I’m not beyond spoofing myself. One tries to beguile in life and ought at least take a stab at it after death. Eternity is a long time to be a boring line of statistics.

I hope those who don’t think, “Boy, he must have been a pain in the ass” will say, “Well, he must have had a very strong personality.”

Find me an art critic who isn’t smug. St. Francis of Assisi would have made a terrible art critic. Saints are too nice, and too often either saving the world or feeding the birds. It’s hard to see an economic, social, and psychological disaster unfold and not, as a good citizen, feel alarmed, if not sickened. As a journalist, which is what I am, it’s a fascinating story, and alarming as well as sickening. How every sector of the visual-arts world has faced the government’s response to the Chinese coronavirus is a topic for commentary. But this soup of panic, quackery, conformity, and aggrandizement that we’re being force-fed is moving or at least tinting the reaction of the visual-arts world.

I think it’s important for people in the arts who are writing criticism to remind whoever among our masters thinks about the arts that “this is the mess you bozos created.” It bears repeating, especially since those masters rarely think about how much the arts enrich their cities and our country. The frightened politicians, lazy reporters, and public-health ciphers who’ve trashed our economy to fight a poor excuse for a plague have visited a weird, unrivaled fiscal-and-fear plague upon the arts.

As one of the handful of art critics writing for conservative journals, I have an unusual platform. Given a platform to express my views, I’ll use it. I have many strong opinions after 30 years in the arts, a good and long career. That said, I don’t really need anything from anyone, and, especially given my pointed criticism, nobody is going to do anything for me.

That explains my approach.

Ladies in waiting…for museums to reopen. Pictured: Young Lady in Waiting, 18th century, by Katsukawa Shunsho. (Metropolitan Museum/Open Access)

I read three pieces about Chinese-coronavirus fallout today. Digging through last week’s U.S. Labor Department jobs report, the good people at Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight outfit found that employment in museums, historical societies, and house museums dropped 26 percent in two months. It’s a raw number and mostly reflects layoffs at the low end of the museum pay scale: visitor-services people.

As the financial impact of the COVID-19 shutdowns oozes into the entire museum organism, the curatorial, fundraising, marketing, museum education, and the new diversity HR mafia will all feel the pain. The budget and job cuts at MoMA I reported last week were broad and deep. That’s the future.

One feature in the Labor Department report surprised me at first but seemed right after I thought about it. It’s worth noting, as a talking point for arts people dealing with a boisterous, intrusive, power-drunk government as it tries making our economy and prosperity a punching bag: The report pegs employment in the museum sector nationwide at only about 200,000 people. It’s a tiny number in a U.S. workforce of about 165 million. I’d dicker with it, in that it doesn’t count the college-museum contingent, counted among higher-education employment. Still, it’s a small band sitting on our vast visual-arts heritage and hundreds of billions of dollars in assets. These 200,000 or so people do important, irreplaceable work.

In another survey, the venerable Art Dealers Association of America, whose fairs I cover, estimated second-quarter art sales in purchase prices would drop 73 percent. This sounds reasonable to me. My dealer friends tell me business is moribund. Again, in another surprise, the drop in sales in the first quarter was 31 percent. We were already in an art-market recession.

A third bit of news involved the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which announced that it won’t reopen until mid-August at the earliest. As I’ve said many times, the Met is as big and complicated as a university. Moreover, its timetable is governed in part by the state and local governments.

I’ve suggested that the Met open its permanent collection as soon as health officials allow. This summer’s tourism in New York will, I suspect, be quaint in numbers. The Met can manage the traffic and, as the country’s museum titan, it needs to be seen as welcoming the public. If it drags its feet through the entire summer, I hope other New York museums don’t follow its bad example.

I believe that the Met might have maneuvered itself into an odd spot. Like a fancy New York restaurant or the Queen Mary 2, it loses money unless it’s full. That’s an entirely unforeseen and ironic consequence of its two-year-old policy of charging a hefty $25-per-head admissions fee on tourists to balance its budget.

The longer museums stay shut, the less defensible it is to pay anything more than a bare-bones staff. Keeping a full complement of curators and administrators on the Met payroll for the past two months, for instance, was generous, and I suppose many of them had work to do. The press office, I know, has been as unfailingly responsive as always.

At some point, though, keeping a staff as big as the Met’s on a full-time salary will seem an unwise use of a charity’s money. I’d say that about any museum. I was a curator for years, and I can’t imagine working from home, without a library, files, or my collection at hand, on a serious full-time basis for more than a couple of weeks.

At some point after that, the trustees should start to squirm, some among them arguing that spending money to pay people who are mostly doing nothing is negligence. The responsible way to shepherd a museum’s assets under these circumstances is to furlough a broad portion of the staff, which is why the unemployment-compensation system exists. The Met’s leaders might argue that the staff will return to work earlier in the summer, but if the place can open for the staff, it needs to open for the public.

These are only some of the ugly consequences of the COVID-19 lockdown fiasco. I find it appalling as a citizen and journalist that so little thought went into weighing the costs of crashing the economy and quarantining hundreds of millions of healthy people, something never done before in human history.

Arts people, as a rule, get news from the New York Times, Rachel Maddow, CNN, and Vox — we all know the ilk — so, as a rule, they’re blinkered. I hope in writing about COVID-19 to offer some nuggets contrary to the received wisdom. Arts venues, especially theaters, are going to be asked to make lots of changes, many, I suppose, giving their viability a fatal beating. Theaters of all kinds, for instance, engage audiences. That’s the financial, aesthetic, and pedagogical model from the days of Homer.

All arts organization should question the apocalypse crap and push back mighty hard. Who, for instance, died and left precisely six feet the supreme flower of socially acceptable distance? Now’s not the time to be supine.

Who knows whether or not coronavirus will raise its ugly head and toss its curls in the fall? It’s with us, and it’s hubristic to assume we’ll have a vaccine when none exists for any other coronavirus. Arts leaders need to get some spine in the event that another lockdown comes down the pike.

Challenging authority and convention ought to be a good artist’s expertise. After the Trump election, the arts took pride in their starring role in that new genre, part madcap, part tearjerker: the Resistance. Turns out, they’ll lay in front of a steamroller with nary a peep.

I’ve written a few times about the need for museums to reopen, which they are. Another much-loved friend said, “Well, there’s a lot we don’t know about the virus.” There’s a lot we don’t know about almost everything, and we still get up in the morning and get on with our lives. The longer we’re paralyzed with fear and submission, the closer we get to the Stone Age. I’m an art historian, and as a historian, I think we know enough.

The Houston MFA is the first museum to reopen. Pictured: The Orange Trees, 1878, by Gustave Caillebotte. Oil on canvas. (Wikimedia)

I see the very good Houston Museum of Fine Arts has already opened, and many others will follow this weekend. It’s the right thing to do, and here I definitely do know that I’m right. Big New York, Boston, Detroit, or Philadelphia museums? Probably not now, in my opinion. Lots of other places, including my three local museums — the Bennington Museum, the Clark, and Mass MoCA? There’s no reason for them to be closed.

Mass MoCA in North Adams, Mass., the biggest contemporary art museum in the world, wants to reopen now but needs the state’s okay. Pictured: Perfectly Clear (Ganzfeld), 1991, by James Turrell. (Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. © James Turrell. Photo: Florian Holzherr)

I feel this way for philosophical as well as practical reasons. My philosophy on the world is old-school, possibly even Victorian. I see museums and libraries as mastheads for a civilized society. That they exist and thrive shows we respect heritage, cherish and promote philanthropy, and see access to culture as a right for all that is not to be compromised.

Museums, like libraries and, I would add, schools, should never close their doors, barring a calamity, and in the case of museums, I would say “extraordinary calamity.” Museums are not-for-profits and tax-exempt because they serve the public. They’re not private clubs.

On 9/11, I was in charge of the Clark while the director was away, in New York, as it happened. I wouldn’t close the museum as many of my colleagues wanted. Aside from feeling confident that we were safe from the crazies — the Clark was in the country surrounded by woods and a cow pasture — I believed that if one person wanted to look at art on that terrible day, our doors would stay open.

This is a sticking point for me because I believe museums have a broadly egalitarian mission to educate and serve the public. It might surprise readers to hear that this is not a universally accepted view among museum people. There are the snobs, to be sure. They think the public is too dense to enjoy a lovely, incisive, challenging cultural scene. They think museums are for connoisseurs and for “people like them.”

Then, in the current sad crisis, there’s the “we’ll take our own sweet time” crowd, which is more arrogant and lazy than snobby. They’re the ones who make museums seem as if they operate on biblical time — you know, the “Methuselah lived 969 years and spent 968 in meetings” kind of time.

European museums are reopening with keep your distance rules. Pictured: An employee at the closed Royal Museums of Fine Arts in Brussels, Belgium, inspects a sculpture before its reopening as Belgium began easing coronavirus lockdown restrictions, May 7, 2020. (Francois Lenoir/Reuters)

Most curators would be shocked to hear they have a public-service mission. And there’s management that caters to every fear of every neurotic on the staff. Museums can’t stay closed to accommodate any of these people. It’s irresponsible. The key job of museum director now is to reopen. The key job of every trustee is to ask “why not” when faced with navel-gazers.

People have been needlessly frightened by politicians and public-health bureaucrats who think we’re too dumb to be moved by anything more subtle than fear, and this terrible governance is bad for society, which, I think, has to get back to normal.

Here, again, I’m unorthodox among art critics. I think about jobs, tax revenue to pay for programs, and whether or not our children have a healthy attitude toward risk. I like risk-takers in the arts. We won’t enjoy cultural vibrancy if the public is a bunch of safe-space blobs. States and cities are already cutting grants to the arts. Art lovers are angry but, duh, where do they think the money comes from? Trash the tax base, we trash programs getting tax money. Trash the economy, we give philanthropy a kick in the butt.

After months of Black Death propaganda, and what we’re seeing is a form of atrocity propaganda, people need to be coaxed back to public spaces and communal living. Museums have a responsibility to do their part in advancing the irrefutable fact that Dracula, Freddy Kruger, and Jaws aren’t hiding behind every Giacometti bronze, or every dress rack or hot dog stand, or under every beach blanket, or next to us, in every seat at every concert, play, or lecture.

Since I write for National Review, a broadly conservative journal, it’s no surprise that I have a Burkean view of society as an organic whole that’s not atomized. That’s one element of the conservative mind. I’m no Ayn Rand follower. The public places that can open — and museums as marquee civic spaces are the top of the heap — need to reopen in simple solidarity with the millions of people in farming or essential factories, the service sector, and safety, health, and transportation fields who weren’t furloughed and continue to work. They can’t do Zoom work, and they aren’t among the lucky-ducky government employees who are sailing through COVID-19 with minimal unease and unperturbed — or even fattened — paychecks. Hiding under the bed while they labor isn’t right.

Is this the message museums want to send? (Wikimedia)

Beyond philosophy, there are no practical reasons for museums to stay closed. I was a museum director for ten years. The hygiene steps and training needed to reopen aren’t of Moon-landing complexity. At this point, with an economy in shambles and after a reign of terror and recklessness by government, failed models, and a doom-hungry press, public places need to take those steps that are reasonable. They need to communicate what they’re doing. If those among the population who are susceptible to COVID-19 feel that they don’t want risk, given reasonable steps, they can stay home.

Museums are fortunate in that they’re the best-suited spaces for a safe, happy cultural experience. Theaters, symphonies, and opera and ballet companies will be hammered by pandemic fears, real and imagined. Museums need to lead the way toward making communal-arts activities enjoyable without terror and without wearing a COVID-19 burka.

One last tidbit that isn’t news but a revelation. Last week, I wrote about new guidelines from the art-museum-directors’ association forgiving museums if they tap acquisitions endowments for operating-budget relief or if they sell art to fund not the purchase of new art but “collection care,” which means operating-budget relief. I was shocked, and I don’t shock easily, to hear from curator friends reporting that their museums already divert acquisitions endowment money to general-fund use. They’ve been doing it for years as spending exceeded fundraising. Times have changed since I was a curator. Then, not in the too-dim-past, that was a huge no-no. Director scruples, evidently, have atrophied along with curatorial cojones.

Finally, why do I call this awful bug the Chinese coronavirus? Well, it’s from China, isn’t it? If it were from Greenwich, I’d call it the Greenwich grippe. I love the precision of the English language. That’s its debt to German. “Wuhan” would, I suppose, modify the disease more accurately, but English doesn’t accommodate words beginning in “wu.” They’re not naturally easy to pronounce or remember. The only one I can think of quickly is “wussy.”

Language-wise, we live in a time of denial and obfuscation. In many fields, this is the case, like saying a “him” is a “them.” Of course, it’s fashionable, too, to call everything racist. There’s an obsession with not “giving offense,” and that’s wussy.

“COVID-19” is obscure. Even as a technical term, it’s slang and an abbreviation. Do many people know that it means “coronavirus discovered in 2019?” The word, a new one, doesn’t clarify. It’s too murky. Why would we want to make things murky? What’s brought our economy to its knees is the grossly incompetent management of a new virus coming most likely from a Chinese Communist Party–owned and –operated lab, and our pickle is partly the consequence of CCP lies. Using clear language to underscore this simple fact is useful for the reckoning that needs to occur. “Chinese coronavirus” is both precise and expansive. It tells us who, what, where, and how.

“It is what it is” is a popular slogan, I know, but it’s useful in expressing a salubrious, serene acceptance of things we can’t change. Words help us make sense of the world, and “Chinese coronavirus” is, well, what it is.

Enjoy Memorial Day, in numbers fewer than ten. Next week, I’ll write about a good, ongoing show at London’s Victoria & Albert called “Concealed Histories.” It considers the museum’s provenance history program, focusing on the Nazi past of some of the silver, miniatures, and gold boxes in the Gilbert collection. Arthur Gilbert was a genius collector, British but based in Los Angeles, where he made a fortune. His collection is superb, and everyone would say about him as I hope people say about me: “He had a very strong personality.”

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