Earlier this month, horticulturists at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum were putting the final touches on one of the city’s most anticipated floral displays: The Holiday Garden, a vivid infusion of more than 400 flowering plants, ferns, and shrubs that each year transform the Fenway museum’s courtyard into a lush bouquet brimming with poinsettias, cyclamen, amaryllis, and orchids.
It was a joyful interlude, a welcome punctuation to this historically grim December, and a promise of better times ahead.
But this is 2020: The display was cut short when city officials called on museums to close once again in an effort to slow the spread of the virus.
“It was a shock,” said Erika Rumbley, the museum’s director of horticulture. “The purpose of working with these flowers is for them to be seen by people and bring joy.”
Over the next six hours, Rumbley and her team disassembled the Holiday Garden, donating some 250 flowering plants to artists and community centers across the city, who in turn have used the blooms at virtual holiday parties or distributed them to families.
“It was a sad day,” she said. “But it ended up being so beautiful.”
And so it goes as the Gardner grinds to an abrupt halt, closing for a mandated three weeks, though few imagine the city’s museums will re-open that soon.
In some respects, the Gardner is better positioned to close than it was last spring, when it voluntarily shut its doors along with the city’s other museums for what became a four-month stretch. Remote work systems are in place. Safety protocols have been established, and the museum has spent months developing robust online programming.
By other measures, however, this latest closure could present even greater peril. The Gardner, which avoided layoffs last time around, has already maximized most of its cost saving measures, canceling programs, extending exhibition cycles, and reducing its operating budget by millions.
It all depends on how long the museum remains closed, said Clifford Rust, the Gardner’s chief financial and administrative officer. While the museum could weather a shorter closure of a few weeks, another four-month shutdown would call for harder choices.
“That would be a very, very difficult scenario for us,” said Rust. “We’ve trimmed so many of our expenses down to where we currently are, we don’t have the same options we had in the spring.”
But even a relatively short closure will be enormously expensive for the museum, which costs around $40,000 a day to operate at reduced capacity during the pandemic. Museum officials estimate the Gardner could also lose as much as $150,000 in earned revenue during the three-week closure, a figure that in pre-COVID times would have been closer to $340,000.
Gardner director Peggy Fogelman called the losses sobering.
“We’re going to have to be very, very creative about problem solving with zero earned revenue coming in,” she said. “Simply belt tightening on a programmatic level won’t get us to where we need to go…because we still want to serve our audience.”
Through it all, everything from conservation and horticulture to security and operations must also continue unabated.
Take the physical structure: Both the newer Renzo Piano building and the retrofitted palace are by now more specialized pieces of technology than traditional buildings, with their state-of-the-art security and bespoke climate control systems.
The palace, now well over a century old, is a conservation project all its own. And while the museum has a capital plan that goes out decades, the latest closure gave conservators an uninterrupted window of time to accelerate renovations that otherwise would take place over a span of weeks, working mornings before the museum opens, or Tuesdays, when the museum is closed.
“We can now do that work on consecutive days,” said Holly Salmon, the museum’s director of conservation.
Salmon and her team spent part of this week de-installing a portion of the museum’s Titian Room as part of an ongoing renovation of the famed gallery, while other conservation staffers used soft-bristled brushes to clean the courtyard fountain.
“It’s a very strange feeling, because if people can’t come into the museum, they can’t appreciate the art,” said Salmon. “It kind of defeats the purpose of our work, which is preserving it so that people can appreciate it.”
The same could be said of the courtyard, where Rumbley and her team are removing all but a handful of the remaining plantings, concentrating instead on the museum’s sprawling greenhouse operations in Hingham.
Rumbley’s team usually keeps the courtyard shows looking fresh by ferrying plants back and forth from the south shore. These days, however, she’s trying to time the flowers at the greenhouse, turning the temperature down to keep the blooms in a holding pattern, ready to blossom at a moment’s notice for the January show.
“We can push them into a warmer house to get them to open more quickly, and then we can pull them into a cooler house to hold them back,” she said. “Logistically, this just means that our team is loading hundreds of terracotta pots onto carts and moving them back between different spaces to try to hit a target that we don’t know.”
During the last closure, Rumbley ended up having to prune back or compost plants that missed their bloom window, yet another loss in a year that saw the museum’s operating budget shrink by an estimated $3 million.
Fogelman said she hoped to avoid similar losses during the current closure, adding that she planned to meet with the board soon to discuss the museum’s options.
Even so, she said, the open-ended nature of yet another closure makes it doubly difficult — particularly after seeing how much the community missed the museum during the first closure.
“Our whole purpose is to be there for the public, and, through art, to engage people in meaningful experiences that help them feel connected,” she said. “You’re not doing what you were made to do.”