PORTLAND, Maine — Where were we? Right. It was March 12, with the world ending outside the window of the Empire restaurant on Portland’s Congress Street while my steaming bowl of noodles grew cold. With one hand, I picked over my plate, my phone cradled in the other as I read an e-mail from New York’s Metropolitan Museum saying it would close the next day for an unspecified period, the result of growing concerns over coronavirus transmission. Within the hour, Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Harvard Art Museums, and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum followed suit with a jointly-issued statement, closing all four museums in one fell swoop. From there, the dominoes kept falling, coast to coast. Museum after museum sealed itself tight. Concerts were canceled. Theater productions went into limbo. A few days later, the Portland Museum of Art, which I’d come to visit that day, followed the rest into oblivion, closing down with no clue as to when it might be back.
It was the last museum I’d see for longer than I could ever imagine. So maybe it’s fitting that it’s also the first I’d see again, bookends to the solitary dead zone between. With exactly no fanfare (I found out only by absent-mindedly meandering to the website this week) the museum cracked open its doors for the first time in more than three months on Wednesday, proceeding with a toe-in-the-water, see-how-it-goes approach. In its first days of reopening, just one thing’s certain: There’s an enforced building visitor capacity of 45 at any one time. For a place that comfortably held 1,200-plus on a busy Friday night, that’s the proverbial abundance of caution in action.
The bridge from before to after is what I came here to see. In Boston, we’ve done a lot of talking about what museum reopening might look like, but we’ll be waiting a while yet: Governor Charlie Baker’s original phase three reopening date of June 29, which includes museums, was just pushed back to July 6. There’s that abundance of caution again, though it’s gotten us past a terrifying April peak to what, fingers crossed, looks like a thoroughly-crushed curve.
In Maine, where the pandemic’s footprint has been significantly lighter — just over 3,000 total cases, versus 100,000-plus in Massachusetts — it seemed a given that the state’s museums would break the seal sooner. Leeriness from Governor Janet Mills kept things locked a little longer than many hoped — a June 19 letter to the governor from a consortium of arts organizations took a conciliatory tone, even as it gently urged her to consider the critical role they could play in healing Mainers’ pandemic-damaged psyches. The fear has less to do with the locals than with visitors: In July, Maine’s tourism industry will officially reopen for overnight stays by out-of-staters without the need for a 14-day quarantine. But those jaunts are available only to those who can produce a negative COVID-19 test, taken in the previous 72 hours.
All of this makes for a complicated museum visit. We used to come here for a respite, a refuge, a pause. But everything — from grocery shopping to pumping gas to getting a coffee — is complicated now. “We weren’t sure what to expect — would people stay away, would it just be tried-and-true members?” said Graeme Kennedy, the museum’s director of communications. “But at 10 every morning, everyone’s here! Honestly, more than anything, it’s just so nice to see people again.”
As Kennedy spoke, he and other staff stood on the museum’s granite steps in the late morning sun, guiding people to and from the threshold. Everyone was masked and happy; one group, a mother and three grade-schooler girls, were positively giddy. I later crossed paths with them inside, where they excitedly chattered about a Thomas Cole painting, and then a small Fitz Hugh Lane. “Woooowww — that’s so cool!” one of the girls crowed, looking at the luminous haze Lane cast above one of his harbor scenes. Inside of me, something bloomed. God, I missed this.
But first, Kennedy had squired me to the registration desk to check in and confirm my phone number, presumably for contact tracing. He explained that the museum had decided to let people wander freely, rather than keep them on a single track, a subject of much debate in the post-coronavirus museum world. “We want people to stay curious, but be mindful of others,” he said. “That’s just a nice message to have.” At every corridor break or staircase top or bottom, bright blue signs echoed that message in cute, friendly font, complete with instructive cartoon birds. (“Wear a mask! Be empathetic! Wash your hands!” they chirp — words to live by, whether in a museum or not.)
We walked into Carrie Moyer and Sheila Pepe’s “Tabernacles for Trying Times,” a dazzling tangle of color and form interrupted just a few weeks into its run by the museum’s closure. It felt like picking up a lost novel and flipping to the bookmark, then having to thumb back a few pages to remember the story. This, three months ago, is what I had come to see. At the time, the pandemic was evolving quickly, though I naively believed museums would remain immune to its shutdowns — that their big footprints, built-in crowd controls, and generally solitary visitorship was a reasonable shield.
An exhibition built around collective empathy seemed purpose-built for dangerous times. The show embodied what cultural experience in a museum had always meant for me: a place of communion where experience could be shared semi-solitarily, but in public. Moyers and Pepe nudged a little outside that comfort zone, inviting people to collectively unravel and reweave a vast drape of yarn hanging from the museum’s vaulted ceiling. But the act of collective touching couldn’t be worse suited to a world under assault by a fast-moving virus, so the show became, instead, an emblem not of communion but of slow-creeping terror. (The work’s dangling yarn remains, but no touching, please.)
Then the museum shut down, the world ended, lurched, and ended again in an eruption of protest over the country’s generational sin of white-supremacist racial terror. From those ruins, something new is growing — something better, if only because it couldn’t be worse. “Tabernacles for Trying Times” didn’t get a chance to reframe viewers’ world through its empathetic lens; instead the world’s spasms and shifts reframed the work itself, and its message feels strong and good and real in a moment where rebuilding from the ground up is the only sensible thing to do.
As for the rest, well, it’s surprising what you can get used to, isn’t it? About five minutes into the upstairs galleries, I was more attuned to just being there than the mask on my face; the hand-sanitizing stands that stood watch at regular intervals started to disappear (though not completely; I used them, and often, I promise). I felt my sleepy art-viewing synapses flickering back to life. A gallery called “Awkward Meetings” threw off sparks. Works by the late Black American painter David Driskell and the Choctaw-Cherokee artist Jeffrey Gibson seemed to confront Leonardo Drew’s “Number 139,” a wall of sharp wood and wire painted flat black. “American Modernism” gathered the usual suspects of Marsden Hartley and John Marin with Yasuo Kuniyoshi and Andrew Wyeth (who is Modern, I’ll forever argue, whatever your textbook says). “Transatlantic Abstraction” gives top billing to Pablo Picassoand Fernand Leger, but what a pleasure to see Lois Mailou Jones’s “Paris Le Soir” (1948-50) holding its own and then some. Jones, born in Boston, was a Black woman staking her claim to Modernism, even if it meant moving to Paris, where the strength of her work meant more than the color of her skin.
See? It all comes back. The world we knew isn’t gone. It’s still there, though buried under a few more layers. But you can see it now, waiting on the other side. I left with my hands smelling of rubbing alcohol and feeling elated, in pursuit of noodles at one of the inside-out restaurants now camped out on Portland streets. It’s different. It’s not better. But after months of my most enriching public experiences being trips to Trader Joe’s, it’s way, way more than good enough.