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Museums Featuring Art Online, But Coronavirus Closures Test Their Financial Stability

Like so many places where people gather, museums are closed in the COVID-19 pandemic and people have lost their jobs. Around New England, the big museums are taking a variety of approaches to engage would-be visitors and donors as they try to envision the future. 

Some are repackaging and promoting existing tours of museum shows. A few are developing new material for online visitors.

At the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, “Savor: A Revolution in Food Culture” was to be a hands-on exhibit. Viewers would have been allowed to touch and smell a variety of herbs, and pick up replicas of art set out on a dining table.

The show opened February 29. About two weeks later, the Wadsworth — like other museums — closed its doors. “Savor” is now a web-based exhibit.

'Hopeful that we can open as soon as possible'

While museums may not be the top concern in this global crisis, the arts sector and the people who work in it have been hard hit. Curators, artists, security guards, store clerks and cleaners are among those in the museum industry who have been furloughed.

A file photo of the Springfield Museums in Springfield, Massachusetts.
Credit Courtesy of the Springfield Museums
Springfield Museums
The Springfield Museums closed in March because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the Springfield Museums, a complex of museums including The Amazing World of Dr. Seuss, President Kay Simpson said, for the moment, no one has been laid off. 

“We are really hopeful that we can open as soon as possible, because — of course — like many other museums, we are suffering financially from the closure,” Simpson said. 

Simpson would not say much more about the Springfield Museums’ finances. But she stressed that if they are not able to re-open for the busy summer season, the board will have to figure out how to make up the revenue shortfall.  

For now, in this mostly stay-at-home existence, Simpson said they're doing what a lot of museums are doing.

“We are putting information or activities on our web site — a short video about some aspect of our collections or a special exhibit,” she said.

The art museum is also offering virtual drawing classes and tours, and activity sheets are available for kids to explore all their museums. In time, Simpson said it may also make sense to design virtual field trips for schools, but not on the fly.

“The thought is, do you want to invest a lot of time developing those kinds of offerings when, in fact, this might be short lived?” Simpson said.

'Most socially distant museum in the world'

At the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams, they’ve come up with a "less is more-than-enough strategy,” said Jodi Joseph, communications director.

MASS MoCA posts images and videos on Facebook and Instagram several times a day, Joseph said, reminding visitors why they want to get back there as soon as possible.  

MASS MoCA's expansion opened May 28, 2017.
Credit Jeremy Goodwin / NEPR
MASS MoCA's expansion opened May 28, 2017.

Executive Director Joe Thompson said it can't be soon enough.

“We are heavily reliant on things like ticket sales and concerts and festivals," Thompson said. "And that, of course, has been completely wiped out.”

MASS MoCA shut its doors the weekend of March 15. Without visitors, Thompson said he has had to make excruciating decisions about where to cut.

“Anybody that has anything to do with taking care of our public suddenly did not have anything to do,” Thompson said. 

In the first few weeks, MASS MoCA decided to keep paying staff in full. As it became clear the pandemic was continuing into the spring and maybe the summer, the museum began phased layoffs. 

The idea, Thompson said, is to hire back as many people as soon as possible for MASS MoCA’s numerous music festivals and shows, and for its many galleries. When that happens, Thompson said, the museum's old mill buildings might actually have an appeal other museums don't.

“I mean, this can be the most socially distant museum in the world, probably, you know, giving people thousands or tens of thousands of square feet of space per visitor,” he said.

The Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass.
Credit Shinya Suzuki / Creative Commons / flic.kr/ps/21KLS1
Creative Commons / flic.kr/ps/21KLS1
The Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass.

Much of the Berkshire County economy depends on tourists who come to visit attractions like MASS MoCA, The Clark and Norman Rockwell Museum, which last week announced staff layoffs. 

'This is real money'

The financial hit is not just in lost ticket sales, said Anita Walker from the Mass Cultural Council. The organization has been documenting the financial impact on the cultural economy of Massachusettssince mid-March when Governor Charlie Baker ordered non-essential businesses to close.

"The [museum] doors were closed. No earned income. The stock market was going down, down, down. No contributed income off of their endowment savings,” Walker said. “People were nervous about the financial future, so they were not making donations.”

The greatest source of revenue for museums right now, Walker said, will come from a federal stimulus package.

“The one that we're particularly focused on is coming through the Small Business Administration," she said. "This is real money. It can make a real difference and be a game-changer for organizations."

If the pot of money ends up being big enough.

Over time, one other source of income could be digital revenue. For the last decade, many museums have been thinking about how to make themselves more digitally accessible, said Elizabeth Merritt founder of the Center for the Future of Museumsat the American Alliance of Museums.

Merritt said many institutions are well-positioned for this moment. 

“Museums are pumping out a huge variety of high-quality, entertaining and educational digital content right now and a lot of it's for free, which is great," Merritt said. "But in the long term, that either needs to be funded by philanthropy, or the government, or we have to find the people who are willing to pay for it. Because the income stream has to come from somewhere."

There's been a huge surge worldwide in the public's use of online collections since around 2008, Merritt said. The data indicate those online viewings push physical visits to the museum. It's a double win, she said.   

But it only works if their doors are open.

Jill Kaufman has been a reporter and host at NEPM since 2005. Before that she spent 10 years at WBUR in Boston, producing "The Connection" with Christopher Lydon and on "Morning Edition" reporting and hosting. She's also hosted NHPR's daily talk show "The Exhange" and was an editor at PRX's "The World."
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