Clad in the obligatory face mask, Anne Sergi stepped foot into the Institute of Contemporary Art late Tuesday morning, making her one of the first people to visit a Boston museum in the age of coronavirus. She peered at the “Sterling Ruby” exhibit while surrounded by staff members, sculptures, and overhead lights.
“This is so wonderful,” said Sergi, a North End resident who frequented the ICA before the virus shut down the city. “I’ve longed to see a work of art for months. And today, I don’t have to worry too much about blocking people’s view or invading their privacy.”
The Seaport museum was one of the first Boston cultural institutions to welcome back patrons when it unlocked its doors Tuesday morning. Other major metropolitan spots — the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, New England Aquarium, Boston Children’s Museum, and Museum of Science — are slated to reopen soon.
Large indoor venues, like gyms, theaters, and of course, museums, were given the go-ahead when the city moved Monday into Phase 3 of Governor Charlie Baker’s reopening plan. But some establishments, like the Museum of Fine Arts, still chose to hold off on reopening until the fall.
The ICA’s first day back was reserved for its 8,500 members. The museum’s doors will open to the general public on Thursday. (There are currently no plans to reopen the ICA’s Watershed location, in East Boston.)
ICA deputy director of public engagement and planning Kelly Gifford said a maximum of 100 people will be permitted into the museum every hour. While the building’s galleries have opened, many other public spaces remain closed, including the Bank of America Art Lab, Common Room, Poss Family Mediatheque, 325-person theater, and even small elevators.
“Our mission is to bring together the art and the people,” Gifford said. “Without the visitors, there is no museum. But the first priority is the safety of our staff and visitors, and we wanted to make sure everyone has more than enough space to move around.”
No patrons were present when the museum officially swung open its doors at 10 a.m. But a smattering of visitors could be found meandering the fourth-floor gallery a couple of hours later, once an afternoon rainstorm subsided. Security guards stood by the doors enforcing safety regulations, and curators and visitor assistants also milled about the space.
Most of Tuesday’s visitors had reserved online tickets, just as the museum encouraged. Some managed to purchase same-day admission at the front desk. All remained masked and socially distanced for the duration of their visits.
Longtime supporters Caleb Ho and Jacqueline Church said it was a privilege to resume monthly visits as a couple. “When the museum shut down, there was a big void in our life,” Ho said. “This is our first leap into the new normal.”
Jeffrey Gato mirrored that sentiment. After admiring a deep-blue urethane block sculpture, the Ashland native said the experience of browsing galleries was “the first time everything feels remotely OK this year.”
Heather Starkel, also of Ashland, said she came to the ICA after tiring of trips to the park and to Paris’s Louvre Museum via virtual tours.
“The virtual experience isn’t the live experience as everyone knows by now,” she said from behind a KN95 mask.
The crowd Tuesday was mostly made up of lone art lovers and couples, but a few families also popped in.
Suzanne Chow paced around Ruby’s “FIGURES. PILE. (6991)” sculpture with her kids, Zach and Zoe. She said returning to indoor spaces gives her and her family a sense of peace, but it also renews anxieties about the pandemic.
“Just to get a taste of the world again — it feels so nice,” Chow said. “We got the memberships this year because I can’t imagine the closure is easy on the ICA or any museum. But this is the extent of what we are comfortable with right now.”
Most visitors said they felt confident in the museum’s safety regulations: floor stickers marking distances of 6 feet, sporadically placed boxes of Lysol wipes, and tissues placed near elevator buttons.
Michael Simons, an ICA member for six years, said he correctly presumed the place would be quiet and mostly empty.
“Coming the first day is a great opportunity before the crowds flood in,” he said. “Plus if I occupy myself safely and just do something, it makes the ‘corona times’ go by quicker.”
But the choice to reopen the museum worried at least one local on the scene.
Kim Schuester has been using the massive wooden steps at the back of the museum as an outdoor workspace. Now, with the possibility of patrons coming by, she said she may look for a new spot to answer e-mails and gaze at the water.
“I love this space, the water, the planes in the distance,” she said. “But if this is going to get crowded all of a sudden, that’s concerning.”
Three hundred ICA members have already reserved timed tickets for this month, but staff still don’t expect hoards of people for a good while.
“We’re not expecting large crowds and people wrapping around the building,” said chief curator Eva Respini. “And we don’t want that. People in Massachusetts take guidelines very seriously, and people will come back at their own pace.”
Diti Kohli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @ditikohli_