NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE T hough almost all other museums in Houston have reopened, the leadership at the small, elegant Menil Collection hasn’t finished its navel-gazing. Rebecca Rabinow, its director, whom I don’t know, wants to wait. “Our opening is tied to decreasing COVID-19 hospitalizations,” she recently told the New York Times. “And we’re just not seeing that yet.”
She and her trustees deserve a Greek chorus of skeptical snorts. As of May 22, there were 413 people in Harris County hospitalized with COVID-19 problems in a population of 4.2 million. That’s tiny, and a poor excuse. The Menil isn’t a nursing home, and it’s not a meatpacking plant. With a few precautions, COVID-19 is as likely to roll through its galleries as a herd of tumbleweed. Does she really even want to go back to work? Is it all too stressful?
Over the years, I dealt with battle-ax curators and registrars from hell. I worked in two certifiable snake pits. As much as I would have preferred the peace, quiet, and control of a reptile-free home and hearth, I went to work. Directing a museum is sometimes one headache after another, but, alas, that’s why Rebecca Rabinow is making the big bucks.
What a lucky ducky to keep a thumb on the pause button while collecting a paycheck!
She claims that the Menil’s galleries are too small, but that’s absurd. The museum can control admissions. We know in a few weeks the six-feet rule will go back into the pixie dust whence it came anyway. People aren’t going to live like walking condoms, a tape measure in one hand, and a can of Lysol in another.
The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam has opened, with a 1.5-meter rule, a bit more than four feet. Italians say three feet is fine. The Leaning Tower of Pisa is open. It has a railing on top that’s probably two feet high, or at least that’s what it was when I was there. Italians laugh at America’s rising obsession with safe spaces. That’s not the real world. If you tumble from that leaning tower, well, “d’ora in poi te la dovrai cavare da solo,” or, loosely translated, “you’re on your own, pal.”
The Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice is open. Venice is only a hundred miles from Brescia, the hottest of coronavirus hot spots in Italy. Austrian, Dutch, Danish, and German museums opened weeks ago. The Raphael retrospective in Rome is open. Rome’s endured Nero, frequent sackings, Mussolini, Berlusconi, as well as the Antonine and Justinian plagues and the Black Death.
Europeans might live under the misrule of nannies and nags in Brussels, but they know how to tell the difference between a real, frightening crisis and a case of neurasthenia.
The Menil trustees need to tell their director to open the doors. If she can’t do her job, she needs to take a leave of absence. I’ll come down to Houston and run the place until she gets over the heebie-jeebies. Just buy me a few good Texas barbecue dinners and put me up at ZaZa, the nice boutique hotel where I stayed when I reviewed three shows at the MFA in February, before the world went nuts. It’s an easy walk to the Menil.
ZaZa is open, by the way. It’s a private-sector business. The place is inspired by Zsa Zsa Gabor, the Hungarian bombshell and movie star. The hotel has a movie theme. Zsa Zsa, a Jew, left Budapest with her two sisters in 1941, fearing a Nazi invasion — you know, a genuinely life-threatening crisis. The hotel board’s collective jaw would drop if its manager suggested paying the staff to stay home and read hospital statistics.
Trustees need to give their directors a shove, or a kick in the pants wearing those steel-tipped cowboy boots.
I raised an uncomfortable point last week on trustees’ fiduciary responsibility. Many governors and health directors say museums can open with proper protocols. These protocols aren’t rocket science. Most European museums have reopened. What’s wrong with American museums?
If directors and trustees opt for weeks or months more of “not welcome” messaging, when does keeping more than barebones staff on the payroll become financial negligence? This is even more troubling where the museum, like the Met, is claiming to have a huge deficit.
I was a curator for years and can’t imagine how I’d fill 40 hours a week “working from home” with no library, collection, exhibitions to install, or public to serve for more than a short period and certainly not going-on-three months.
It’s nice to keep a big staff on the payroll if the place is closed. “Wouldn’t it be loverly” to serve caviar and champagne gratis in the staff lounge, as Eliza Doolittle might dream, but is it a prudent use of charitable money? Of course not.
Years ago, right after 9/11, I was chatting with Jim Wood about museums in apocalyptic times. He was the director of the Art Institute of Chicago then but also a trustee of the Clark, where I was a curator. Jim said that in troubled times, of the Mad Max variety, the only essential staff member in a museum, aside from a biker gang patrolling the perimeter, is the registrar. The registrar knows what the museum owns and where everything is and keeps all the records.
We’re far from Mad Max, though New York and Minneapolis are making a stab at it, but if museums are going to stay closed through the summer, as some would prefer to do, they need to go on a barebones staff diet.
It’s a serious, inconvenient fiduciary issue, and “I’m too afraid to work” doesn’t cut the mustard if our masters in government say that it’s safe. Trustees have a fiduciary duty to shepherd a museum’s finances, and paying salaries at a place that’s closed isn’t responsible. It’s an abuse of philanthropy.
Most museums are on a fiscal-year system ending June 30. If they are, they’re doing end-of-year fundraising appeals. If their governors say they can open and they’re still closed, don’t give them any money. Forty million people are unemployed via a social experiment so reckless that Pol Pot might wonder “why didn’t I think of that?” Give your money to a church, food bank, or your local hospital or library.
Washington, in a moment of sanity, established a finish line for how long this wacky, reckless adventure can run. Congress created the Payroll Protection Plan, which federally funds most salaries for eight weeks. There’s also an enhanced unemployment-compensation program for furloughed workers that runs until July 31.
There are millions of private-sector workers for whom “I’m too afraid” is an exotic bird adorned with lead weights in a permanent no-fly zone. These millions are going to work, and so should museum people, who serve the public.
There are a few dynamics at work here. Some museum directors complain that they’re not getting guidance from state and local officials. I have news for those too obtuse to notice. Political people and bureaucrats don’t care about museums. I’ve taken hundreds of politicians through museums, and I’ve never met a class of people denser when it comes to art. Good art doesn’t have a bottom line. A good artist is a renegade at heart. Good art makes such demands as “think for yourself.” It’s not transactional but bewitching, puzzling, and prodding — all concepts that bewilder if not repel the political mind.
So, my message to museums: If you’re in a Phase 1 or 2 scheme, just open your doors. Chances are, people running the government won’t even notice.
I’ve read and heard that some museums have joined broad arts collectives in their cities, working with health departments as a group to reopen. These collectives include theater groups and science and children’s museums. This is a terrible idea. It’s a drag on museums wanting to reopen. The six-feet social-distance rule, which comes from the thin air in the brain of a public-health bureaucrat, will kill live performing-arts groups. Their problems aren’t the museum sector’s. They’re dealing with survival — a big, separate problem.
Science and children’s museums are interactive. Art museums aren’t. Good luck telling five-year-olds not to touch an interactive Wrestle A Dinosaur game, but that’s not a problem for art museums. Getting involved in “one for all and all for one” negotiating collectives only delays art museums in their own effort to reopen.
Museums need to open their galleries to the public, but this doesn’t mean that their restaurants, gift shops, and auditoriums must be open. It’s summer, so a museum can close its coat-check room. It also doesn’t mean they need to finish back-of-house office configurations, which are of no concern to the public.
College and university museums need to open, too. Williams College, where I went to school, closed and sent its 2,000 healthy young men and women home for the year in March, with a couple of days to vamoose. The school, in effect, forced a cloistered community in the COVID-free boonies to travel through airports, bus terminals, and taxi ranks thick with every virus save Dengue fever so its students could go home and kill Grandma.
The muckety-mucks at Williams are secretly delighted. No faculty whiners, or at least you can mute them until you cry, “Oh, bad Internet connection today!” No social-justice warriors, no receptions, no boring lectures, no happy talk with geezers at reunions, and trustee meetings by Zoom. “Heaven . . . I’m in heaven,” as Fred and Ginger would sing, while dancing.
Colleges and universities occupy huge parcels of tax-exempt space in cities and towns. Often the college museum is the only feature of school life open to the general public, usually for free. These museums almost never close during the summer. If their local health agency rules that they can open, they need to open. Their parent colleges and universities continue to have an obligation to make that small gesture to the public in return for contributing nothing to the local tax base.
I’m afraid one thing seems to need repeating. Museums exist to serve the public, not to employ or comfort the staff. Whether from laziness, fear, or stress-avoidance, lots of museum directors, curators, and other staff don’t want to go back to work. Some like staying at home reading Narnia. Others take the New York Times too seriously. There, death’s greeted with crocodile tears, good news with finger-wagging about complacency.
Trustees need to send the message that staying closed isn’t an option.
I don’t associate the American museum community with chutzpah. Too many sheep, too much timidity, too much equity, inclusion, and diversity, too much bland and boring. Still, I saw two fundraising appeals that aren’t daring but are at least nervy, as in “they have a lotta nerve.”
The Nelson-Atkins in Kansas City, Mo., a museum I love, is pitching a gift to its Museum Recovery Fund. “We are confronting large declines,” the museum tells us on its homepage, “in our three funding sources: earned revenue, donations, and endowment returns.” I’m not surprised. Crash the economy on purpose and throw 40 million people out of work, and you summon not only the law of unintended consequences but all its gods and demons, raising their ugly heads and tossing their curls.
It says the museum is slashing budgets, programs, staff, and salaries. I don’t buy the endowment line since the draw is likely based on an average value over eight or twelve quarters. And, obviously, if it wants earned revenue, it needs to open. Right now, its doors are shut. They’re planning “for a reopening as soon as the time is right.” I’m not sympathetic.
The Indianapolis Museum of Art wants money for its Museum Resilience Fund, though it’s not resilient enough to open its sprawling building’s doors. It’s a big, beautiful museum with about as much real estate per capita as North Dakota. I’m not sending a check.
In San Antonio, whose art museum has the good sense to open, 10,000 cars lined up this week outside the city’s biggest food bank to pick up food. There are 40 million unemployed in the country. Those who have jobs need to go to work. Museums have a key role in bringing us back to more normal times and need to rise to the occasion. Committees, endless planning, and freezing-in-place through fear aren’t what the country needs.
Editor’s note: This essay has been emended since it first appeared.