Amidst the wildfire of the coronavirus crisis, much of the cultural world remains without a fixed reopening date. Theaters, concerts, and anything else that requires close-quarter gathering is pure oxygen for the pandemic’s flames.
Museums, though, are different: Capacious and politely restrictive at the best of times — stand back; please don’t touch — these organizations are included in Phase 3 of Governor Charlie Baker’s reopening plan, currently pegged to start June 29. That leaves the state’s museums to take the first steps toward reengaging with public cultural life. And it’s sure to be daunting, no matter how great the demand proves to be. “I don’t think the problem will be creating the appeal,” said Paul Ha, director of the List Visual Arts Center at MIT. “But we’re still making our checklists, trying to figure out how to fly the airplane.”
As part of the Globe’s roundtable series with Boston arts leaders, Ha joined Museum of Fine Aarts director Matthew Teitelbaum, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum director Peggy Fogelman, and Institute of Contemporary Art director Jill Medvedow to talk about the unsteady road ahead as museums prepare to open their doors. Their conversation has been condensed and edited. A video of the roundtable in its entirety can be found below.
Globe: This is the first time people are seeing you together in this format, but this has been an ongoing conversation since the very first day between all of you and your colleagues. I think it would be interesting if we could pull back the curtain for a minute.
Medvedow: Our weekly phone calls, I’d say, cover a range of things. In the beginning, it was more about what it means to work remotely, to keep a staff together, to stay cohesive, what we were learning from our colleagues around the country. It’s shifted now to re-opening protocols. There’s also moral mutual support for the very specific jobs we have as directors as we think about our staffs, our artists, our community, our roles. I know I can only speak for myself, but I look forward to our 30 minute weekly conversation, where I know that there are other people who truly understand my job.
Ha: In a way, we’re the least important people in our museums. I know there’s a weekly call with art handlers at all of our institutions. I know there’s a call with the registrars and getting the logistics of how do you move a piece of art during the pandemic. I’m so grateful that there are all of these different kinds of conversation that will be pooled together.
Globe: Matthew, what was it like to step into that first group call immediately after things changed?
Teitelbaum: The virus is invisible and it’s everywhere. More than ever, we understand that all of our spaces are one space — we’re all public space. And if we don’t get the public space protocol right, and share it, it will undermine all of us. We’re talking about creating a video for our visitors that is shared at every institution, so that the notion of how you enter the space, and the expectations of behavior, all about safety and trust, are broadly shared.
Globe: Reopening is really the dominant theme that everybody wants to know about. I’ll just tell you what I’ve received from readers: They want to know if the shop will be open, they want to know if the cafe will be open. They want to know if there’s any way to activate outdoor spaces to mitigate spread. Will there be hard attendance caps?
Medvedow: July 7 is the date that we are shooting for. As we all know, museums are in Phase 3 of Governor Baker’s reopening plan, so that’s the earliest date the ICA can open. So if the phases hold, and we hope for every reason they do, we will open with timed tickets so that we can avoid contact. We will have dramatically reduced the number of people who can be in the museum at any one time. All of the staff will have face coverings. All visitors will be required [to wear masks]. But if somebody was to forget, then [masks] will be available at the museum. One of the things that we’ve all commented on is how art museums are well-trained in the practice of advising our visitors, and ensuring that our visitors don’t touch a work of art, or don’t get too close to a work of art. And of course, we’ll be expanding that to not getting too close to another person outside of your family group. Like everybody, we’re stepping up the cleaning and the availability of hand sanitizer.
Globe: One of the reader questions I had was specifically directed to the Gardner, which is such an intimate space — it’s homey, for lack of a better term. What is your strategy to preserve that feeling while maintaining safety.
Fogelman: It’s true that one of the unique characteristics of the Gardner is that intimacy. Some of our smaller spaces may need to be closed upon reopening, and then only gradually phased in as restrictions lessen, but we do have some galleries on the first floor that are so tiny that really even at the best of times the occupancy limit is 10 people. So, with social distancing, the occupancy level might go down to two people. We’ll have to figure that out. And the other thing I would mention that’s unique to the Gardner: There’s been a lot of discussion in the museum field about labels, because visitors tend to crowd around labels. At the Gardner, we don’t have labels in our permanent galleries, because that’s the way Isabella Stewart Gardner wanted it. But we do have these laminated gallery cards that at the best of times are kind of icky, but in in this context, are absolutely anathema. So we’re moving all that information to mobile-first technology so that visitors will be able to access it in the gallery without touching anything and without crowding around anything.
Globe: Paul, you have a unique situation in this group in that your museum is free entry. You can come and go as you like. That’s obviously going to have to change.
Ha: We’re fortunate that visual art museums are particularly suited for the post-COVID world in that, unlike theater performances, we’re not seated next to each other, and that most visitors would rather be alone than with a crowd. So in a way, the visitors’ experience could be enhanced with the new rules. We’ll be installing art far enough apart so people aren’t gathered together, we will get rid of the the wall labels and replace them with QR codes.
Globe: Matthew, you have a unique building, in that it’s massive — it can accommodate huge numbers of people. How do you plan to move people from one space to another?
Teitelbaum: Maybe the MFA, because of its scale, is more deeply into the question of ‘how do you take a challenge and make it an opportunity?’ So when we think about our building, we have three entrances. We’ve often had difficulty creating coherence in how someone comes in and out of the space. Well, now we see what we thought used to be a challenge is actually a great opportunity. We might use one entrance for people coming in, and another for people going out, and therefore create a single path through the museum — which is our goal — so you don’t have to return and overlap or turn back. So our planning assumes that a considerable amount of the museum will be open, but not all of it. We want physical distancing. But the art experience is partly about being in a space and having an experience that others are sharing. The excitement about our Monet exhibition ... will be about being in a space — not just singularly with great works by Monet, but sharing that pleasure with others. How do you actually do that in a time when people can’t be physically close?
Medvedow: The wonderful artist Ann Hamilton talks about museums as amazing places people can be alone together. But I think that, as we’re talking about with labels or with entry points and how we move people through spaces, there’s lots of opportunity in the way we have pivoted quickly to online virtual experiences. We know people want and need and in some cases have no other alternative but to have their encounters with great works, and the power of art, online.
Globe: Having such a robust virtual offering by necessity, do you worry about making the case to get people’s feet back in front of the works?
Teitelbaum: We don’t have enough time to talk about the stuff we worry about! I think the big challenge is ‘how do you create a reciprocal relationship between online and in-museum experience? How do you see that as one building strength for the other?’ One thing that we’ve realized is online, you can see any work in the museum you want. We have 500,000 works of art. So we have curators talking about works that normally aren’t on view and it is truly magical.
Fogelman: I think it brings up the age-old question: Do museums become obsolete in virtual worlds? And I think we’ve all found that no, it’s a different kind of experience, but museums are more than just their buildings. They really do create these avenues for collective sharing, and the kind of deeper understanding of yourself and others through your responses to the works of art that you’re seeing in person. And that kind of emotional experience is not replaced by virtual access.
Ha: You think about seeing something like a Van Gogh or Picasso in your textbooks or on a mug, or an umbrella, the first time you see that object in real life, as a person standing in front of it, it changes your life. So I think [digitization] will be a great medium to get the word out. But I think it’ll create more need for the general public to want to come to your space to be in front of that object.
Medvedow: One of the things that I think is important is this virus has only been around for six months. So what we don’t know is way more than what we do know. We’re in a position where we have a tremendous amount to learn from our audiences, in terms of what they want and what they need. We see around the world that people are coming back [to the museum] because it is giving them a sense of emotional connection. As we emerge, at least what I think is that people are going to need the power of the arts.
Teitelbaum: I don’t for a moment stand differently than Jill on that point about the importance of museums and art, and the experience of art. What I do think we can underestimate is how serious the economic situation is for all of us who run museums. It isn’t a matter of just re-imagining the MFA that existed at the turn of 2020 and then bringing it back to life in that form. We are all in the midst of re-imagining what our institutions can be, given changed circumstance. ... So when we talk about online investment, we also have to be very thoughtful about how we allocate the resources necessary to build that capability. At this very moment, the resources are being diminished.
Globe: I’m interested in what the public is going to see. You want to offer something people can relate to. What will that be in the months to come?
Ha: Probably everyone around this nation, they’re going to see a lot more U.S.-based artists, just because of logistics. We had a Swiss artist scheduled for September, and we had to cancel because we couldn’t get any commitments from any of the shipping companies. Especially for our institution, which is dealing with contemporary artists, living artists, we’re going to want to work with artists who can drive to where we are, or take a train, or who can walk to the gallery to do the installation.
Globe: Jill, can you share a little bit about what you’re planning?
Medvedow: It may not be all artists from the United States, but I think you’ll see a lot more collection-based exhibitions [which will] reduce shipping and travel. I think that what you can expect to see at the ICA is a combination of works that our brilliant curators are organizing to share artists whose work feels relevant at this time. Audiences will want works that share moments of joy, and a combination of both solace and stimulation, as people come in for something new.
Teitelbaum: There’s going to be a substantial pause around performance, there’s going to be a substantial pause around how we gather in space. And by the way, I believe that museums exist to gather with purpose. I’m not in the camp that thinks that’s going to turn around quickly. But I will tell you where I’m enormously optimistic. And that is, the challenge for all of us, I believe, is to bring the voices of our communities into our museum, in a real way, into co-creating content in our space. But there’s a deeper obligation to do that, because we need to bring our audiences back in ways that they feel connected to what we do. If we can use this moment to deepen that commitment, we will see increasingly diverse audiences, we will find diversity in every form coming into our institution because they see themselves here.
Fogelman: One of the things as Paul mentioned is all of us having to rethink our exhibition schedule. One of the silver linings in that is that we are going to extend our Boston’s Apollo exhibition which explores the life of one man, Thomas McKeller, through his association with John Singer Sargent, serving as the primary model over many years and particularly for the MFA murals. And in addition to these drawings being stunningly beautiful, they also highlight some of the issues that are directly relevant to what’s happening even this week in our society, and I’m thinking of the tragedies of Mr. Floyd and Mr. Arbery, in particular, and the history of erasure and the history of inequity, and the real inability of us to come to terms with race and the history of racial bias and violence to black and brown bodies.
Globe: This discussion leads directly to a reader question: “Do any of the directors see the disruption of the pandemic as an opportunity to establish the new normal they’ve endeavored to create through their diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusivity efforts?”
Teitelbaum: We know that people need to feel that the institution represents their life experience, and opens up ways of understanding what it means to be a citizen in their community. That automatically takes you to issues of how you represent diversity, how you recognize diversity, and diversity in every sense — racial gender, class, geography. I think that it is not only financially the smart thing to do, it is the right thing to do, because those who founded the MFA in 1870 had as their mission, as their commitment, to create a museum that belonged to all of Boston.
Medvedow: What I’ve seen is that frequently, in terms of staff restructuring, it’s people of color that tend to lose their jobs. As we’ve all worked to have a more diverse and inclusive workforce, as well as governance and audience, they tend to be more recent hires. So ensuring that our staff remains as diverse and inclusive as possible has been really central. For me, ideas about representation — whose stories get told, and who gets to tell them — are central, because what we know is that invisibility is a public health problem, right? We’ve seen the toll that it’s taken on communities of color and on poor people. And it’s only more important as we move forward.
Ha: One of the programs that we do for MIT is we have the student loan program where about 600 students come in, they get to borrow a real piece of art to hang in their dorms for two semesters. And it’s interesting because when you look at the collection, and you see what decade it was bought, or purchased, or donated, you realize that only recently it’s gotten much more diverse. What we’re trying to do is, for every student who walks in wanting a real piece of art, that they themselves are represented in the collection.
Murray Whyte can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte.