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Museums Are Back, but Different: A Visitor’s Guide

This article is part of our latest Fine Arts & Exhibits special report, which focuses on how art endures and inspires, even in the darkest of times.

It has been a singular year for art museums. In most parts of the country, they were closed for several months beginning in March; some are still shuttered. Rarely in living memory has so much art been out of view for so long.

But signs of resilience are everywhere. Many museums have reopened or are in the process of doing so, and it’s clear that things will look a little different to visitors.

On the most visible level of pandemic precautions, some combination of mask mandates, temperature checks, reduced capacity and timed entry is now standard, and will be at least until there’s a coro navirus vaccine.

Some of the changes have even been fun: For a few weeks, the Metropolitan Museum of Art had a bike valet for visitors who wanted to cycle over instead of taking the subway.

But it’s also the art on display that will take new forms.

“We’re being forced to experiment,” said Michael Govan, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which has yet to announce a reopening date.

Closures have put enormous strain on budgets, and to mitigate the effects, organizations have been stepping in. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation announced in September that it was starting a special emergency grant program that is distributing $24 million to 12 midsize museums, including the Pérez Art Museum Miami, the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno and the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, Okla.

For those museums able to reopen, “There are countless silver linings,” said Franklin Sirmans, the director of the Pérez.

He and his staff members used their downtime to increase the size of an exhibition that was scheduled to begin in April: “Allied With Power: African and African Diaspora Art From the Jorge M. P érez Collection.” It will be on view on Nov. 7, when the museum is to reopen.

Here are some of the biggest changes visitors will see this fall, including many that may last well into 2021 and beyond.

The Online Revolution

In early September, Adam Weinberg, the director of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, said that as his institution reopened at reduced capacity, “We’re half online, half in person.”

And he seemed fine with that, given offerings like the webinar series “Art History From Home,” starring curators and educators talking about the collection; a recent edition looked at art and social change.

Kaywin Feldman, the director of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, recalled how quickly the change happened.

“The gallery closed on a Friday still in the 20th century,” Ms. Feldman said, referring to the museum’s closing in March. “And on Monday, we went online and entered the 21st century.”

Ms. Feldman and her staff went to work putting as much material online as they could, from virtual tours of exhibitions to Zoom seminars. “The staff was able to create new tools, and quickly,” she said of virtual exhibitions and daily Instagram stories.

At the Pérez, “Every week, we’ve done an online studio visit with a local artist,” Mr. Sirmans said, adding that thousands of people took part in some online offerings, many more than usual for an in-person event.

In Boston, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is demonstrating how many of these online innovations may stick around post-pandemic, too, with its supplements to the recent show “Boston’s Apollo: Thomas McKeller and John Singer Sargent,” which looked at Sargent’s drawings of an African-American model for a mural series.

The museum introduced an extensive series of digital tours and lectures this fall, including a video conversation about museum and arts activism. And though the physical show has just closed, the online programs continue.

Joining Forces

Museums wanted to be up and running, as long as they could do it safely.

The Whitney opened Sept. 3, and for safety reasons, visitors were encouraged to use the stairs â€" one set for going up, another for going down â€" instead of the elevators, with their closer confines.

“We’re not breaking even being open at 25 percent,” Mr. Weinberg said, given that most museums rely on ticket sales for a significant portion of their revenue. “But museums exist as public services. Culture and the arts provide hope, solace and comfort in a time of isolation and anxiety.”

To make that happen, a working group of New York City’s art museum directors met, virtually, every week to discuss how to move forward â€" and they are still meeting. And they formed a task force of 25 city museums of all types, not just art institutions, that made reopening recommendations to the city and New York State.

“There was a sense that we w ere all in this together,” Mr. Weinberg said.

Nationally, the first major art museum to reopen was the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, which welcomed visitors back in late May.

“Uncertainty and anxiety were our two biggest foes this summer, but seeing our visitors’ expressions gave us the motivation,” said Gary Tinterow, the director.

Someone had to go first. Mr. Tinterow reported that mask mandates and other safety precautions worked well, and, perhaps more important, that visitors didn’t question them, which helped show the way for other museums.

The Houston museum is also pushing forward on its $450 million campus renovation plan, including a new building by the architect Steven Holl, set to open Nov. 21.

“There were a thousand things that could go wrong, and did,” Mr. Tinterow said of the building project, including French oak floors stranded on a dock in Le Havre by shipping delays and local coronavirus travel restrictions; the museum found a new supplier.

“We worked the problems to exhaustion,” Mr. Tinterow added. “Slow and steady wins the race.”

The slow and steady approach is also working for museums that, because of budget, safety or other constraints, are only partly open. Some art on view, they figure, is better than none.

The American Museum of Natural History ended the longest closure in its 150-year history on Sept. 9. Most of its permanent exhibition halls are open, minus heavily int eractive ones; its theaters are also closed.

The National Gallery of Art started in July with the ground floor of its West Building, home to treasures like Leon Battista Alberti’s “Self-Portrait” (circa 1435); the main floor begins reopening Monday.

The Cleveland Museum of Art reopened June 30, and at first it kept its smaller galleries closed.

“We were concerned that social distancing would be a challenge,” said William Griswold, Cleveland’s director. “But we rapidly gained the confidence to reopen more.” With the exception of one gallery, the museum is back.

Timed ticketing and purposeful distancing measures, along with a cautious public, have meant fewer visitors. But that has also created an appealing atmosphere for those who do make it inside. “It feels very safe, partly because there are so few people,” Mr. Griswold said.

Closer to Home

The pandemic scrambled the exhibition schedule at pretty much every museum. In some cases, exhibitions scheduled for spring moved to fall, as in the case of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s show “About Time: Fashion and Duration,” now set to open Thursday. Shows that had just opened when museums were shuttered â€" like the Donald Judd survey at the Museum of Modern Art â€" have a new life, and a slightly longer run, in their current slot. That exhibition has been extended until Jan. 9.

Artworks on loan that had to travel were a particular issue, pushing some exhibitions into the future a year or more.

Most museums take years to plan and mount a major exhibition, so directors and curators had to think fast. The first thing they did was to look to their permanent collections, which many already thought were an underused resource.

Mr. Tinterow said the general attitude was: “What can we cook with what’s already in the kitchen?”

At the Dallas Museum of Art, a Juan Gris exhibition had to be pushed to 2021, so the 12-person curatorial team got together to build “To Be Determined,” a pandemic-appropriate show about uncertainty itself. On view through Dec. 2 7, it has 35 works, mostly from the permanent collection.

The Cleveland museum, already renowned for its trove of artworks, received in early March a gift of over 100 works from the collectors Joseph and Nancy Keithley. The collection, which includes Henri Matisse’s 1914 “Tulips,” has an estimated value of $100 million.

So when the museum reopened, it displayed them interspersed with other pieces from the permanent collection. And it did not have to look beyond its own attic to develop another show, “Stories From Storage,” due in early 2021.

That show will include among its 300 works a Greek drinking cup featuring the god Dionysius and satyrs that was made around 480 B.C.

“Many of the works I’ve not seen in person,” Mr. Griswold said. “Some have never been shown. It’s been a fun project that we never would have done otherwise.”

A separate but related issue is how long exhibitions stay on view. To drive attendance, museums have put pressure on themselves to present new shows frequently. But such efforts can strain budgets and staff members.

Mr. Govan of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art said many museums might now consider “slowing down â€" we don’t need to change things every 10 minutes.”

He added, “We’re going to find out that things you were afraid to do are fine.”

At the same time, Mr. Govan is moving ahead on his own redevelopment project, with a major new building by the Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, due in 2024.

The idea is that building places to come together still matters, and no amount of online art is quite the same.

That may be why, as people come back into art-filled halls this fall, “there is a quiet excitement and hopefulness,” Mr. Weinberg said.

Masks may make the atmosphere subdued at times, but as Mr. Tinterow put it, “Physical encounters with works of art, surrounded by friends and strangers, will remain compelling.”


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