With their museums shuttered now for months, directors in and around Boston are wrestling daily with how to remodel the ways visitors will interact at and with their inherently social, formerly crowded homes for communal art appreciation.
“How do you physically separate but socially engage?” Museum of Fine Arts director Matthew Teitelbaum asked. “I think that's a pretty useful way to think about the challenge for museums.”
The MFA and the rest of Boston's museums have been closed since mid March. But with the state's reopening plan set to be released Monday, the area's art institutions are collaborating to ensure the museum-going experience will be safe for visitors when they eventually return in a new, distanced reality.
Teitelbaum and his peers still have a lot more questions than answers about what that will look like. They talk every week to strategize best practices for welcoming visitors back to the MFA, MIT's List Visual Arts Center, the Harvard Art Museums, the Institute of Contemporary Art and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Teams of staff from each organization are also communicating regularly.
“What we want to be able to do is look back three years from now and say, 'What did we do now that best served our communities in ways that wouldn't have happened otherwise,” Gardner director Peggy Fogelman said.
The gauntlets are many for leaders like Fogelman and Teitelbaum. Museums have been hemorrhaging millions of dollars since closing down in March. They've canceled major exhibitions, watched ticket sales disappear, and at the MFA, Teitelbaum was forced to furlough more than 300 employees.
Staff and visitor safety that aligns with guidelines issued by the city, the state and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are top priority, Fogelman said, along with consistent messaging and common protocols. With those, visitors will know what to expect when they arrive at any of their institutions.
Masks and intense cleaning, especially of restrooms, are givens. Other changes will likely include online tickets only, timed ticketing and no cash handling.
“All of our high-touch materials are going to be moved to mobile phone access,” Fogelman said. Gone will be the old-school, laminated booklets with diagrams of Gardner's specifically-placed masterpieces on the historic building's walls.
Jill Medvedow at the ICA said they expect to add hand sanitizing stations and lots of signage.
“Museums are used to telling people, 'Please don't touch the art,' and, 'Don't get so close,'" she said. "And so we know our staffs can quickly adapt to enforcing physical distancing.”
The museum directors are watching how reopening unfolds at art museums in Asia and Europe. China resumed operations at cultural venues in March. Berlin's institutions welcomed visitors back on May 4. Italian and Belgian museums are scheduled to reopen this week.
"I am really quite sure that the museum we left on March 13 is not the museum we're going to return to -- in ways that I do know, and in ways that I can't yet imagine."ICA Director Jill Medvedow
But each Boston museum faces individual challenges because their personalities, footprints and layouts are different. The ICA, a jewel box perched on the city's harbor, is small but flexible. The Gardner in the Fenway is famed for its sublime intimacy. The nearby MFA is encyclopedic and huge at more than 600,000 square feet with 140 galleries.
Teitelbaum said how to move visitors safely through spaces is another question.
“Is it going to be the grocery store model of arrows on the floor?” he asked, “We haven't made a decision on that yet.”
What Teitelbaum does know is the stakes for good decision making are high at all of the museums because the audiences will need to feel safe, both physically and emotionally. In such economically devastating times museums cannot afford to risk a breach.
“And if we don't create a shared sense of trust,” Teitelbaum said, “the reality is that one big institution not doing well will have unfortunate consequences for the rest of us.”
Gauging What Visitors Need Now
Some of the most concerning unknowns revolve around people's readiness to return to museums. The directors hope to get some answers through a new national survey from the cultural strategy advisory firm LaPlaca Cohen in New York.
CEO Arthur Cohen said one of the seminal questions to participants is, “What are the key factors that will most impact your decision to participate again?”
After September 11, his company created its first audience survey to help museums respond to the fears people faced. This new COVID-19 edition of Culture Track asks participants how they're feeling in the midst of this crisis, what they're thinking, what they're doing in isolation, what activities they miss the most, and what they hope to do when they're able to leave their homes and reengage with the world again.
The survey is being distributed by 750 U.S. museums and Cohen said at least 120,000 people answered by mid-May. It closes this week and the data will be available in June for free through a platform created by Microsoft. A long list of foundations funded the effort with the goal of helping the country's museums create roadmaps for reopening and recalibrating.
“I look at this as the marker of the next reality of the cultural world,” Cohen said. “There are a whole new set of norms which will come into being. Many practices that we have taken as givens in the previous reality will probably be fall to the wayside, either for economic or health related concerns or both.”
But Cohen predicts striking the right balance between coronavirus distancing and the sense of connection visitors seek in museums will be tricky.
“When all the discussion is just about all the boxes we have to check to ensure security and safety, sometimes – or perhaps in so doing – we will be moving away from another set of much more emotional needs,” he said. “The need to be encountering objects with others.”
Some opportunities for those intimate encounters with art will be lost at the ICA, Medvedow acknowledged.
“Works that require really small closed spaces we won't see for a while,” she said. “Possibly until there's a vaccine.”
But Medvedow said her museum's permanent and popular “Infinity Room” installation by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama will remain open with reduced capacity and monitored entry. Medvedow feels fortunate that the ICA has its large, outdoor deck with rows of bleachers overlooking the harbor, where concerts and other events usually take place.
“We do believe that's a space that will be able to have checkerboard seating – or something approximating that – on our grandstand," Medvedow said.
While Fogelman said some of the Gardner's smallest galleries may not be accessible when visitors first come back, the historic building's courtyard will be. She called it the heart and soul of the building.
“Because you can experience it not only from all four sides on the courtyard level, but from every balcony of every floor on the gallery levels,” Fogelman said. “You can access that really exhilarating and centering experience from wherever you are in the galleries. That's an advantage.”
Live performances are another matter. The Gardner and MFA's public programming, concert halls and auditoriums won't come back to life until September.
Temporary art exhibitions will also be installed differently. Teitelbaum explained how the MFA is going forward in the fall with the rescheduled, highly anticipated "Monet And Boston: Lasting Impression" show featuring 35 oil paintings from the museum's collection.
“We will present that exhibition in a larger physical space, but with the same number of paintings,” Teitelbaum said. “We will spread them out. We will put the labels above the paintings.”
The Monet exhibition was scheduled to open at the museum on April 18. Instead, the MFA produced curated digital content that includes a virtual performance by violinist Lilit Hartunian. She played works composed during the artist's lifetime.
Teitelbaum said with fewer visitors allowed inside the museum's building, future onsite exhibitions will likely be paired with online presentations and events to reach larger audiences. All of the museums have invested time and resources in creating ways for audiences to engage digitally with shows, collections, artists and events throughout the coronavirus crisis.
Embracing The New Normal
Even after they reopen, ticket revenue will not be anywhere near where it once was, and recovery at the museums will be long, bumpy and costly. Medvedow said it's been hard to model not just the short term ramifications of being closed for months, but also the longterm needs of being a changed institution with much smaller audiences for the next year or even two.
"I am really quite sure that the museum we left on March 13 is not the museum we're going to return to — in ways that I do know, and in ways that I can't yet imagine," she added, "And I believe that embracing that is really important."
Even with so many dramatic changes, the museum directors all believe the pull to see art in person will not go away, especially in challenging times, because human expression heals.
“People are going to be coming to our museums to see how artists have responded in the past to the emotional, psychological, social, political realities over different periods of time, and to really be able to live in someone else's shoes,” Medvedow said, “which I think this pandemic asks of us over and over and over again every day.”
For now, the directors are eagerly awaiting word from state and the city officials – who they've also been communicating with regularly – about how they fit in the phased re-opening schedule.
This segment aired on May 18, 2020.