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COVID-19 and Museums: The Ongoing Threat to Our Culture

Coronavirus has had an unprecedented effect on our world. From the stock market plunging to borders closing to thousands of layoffs things are changing at a rapid pace and it’s uncertain when anything will go back to normal. For many industries, particularly those within the Creative and Cultural sector, the question is will there be a “normal” to return to? With regard to the global museum sector, that is still to be determined. Museums in countries all over the world have been shut down indefinitely, employees have been laid off, and the push for online content has been overwhelming, but with all of these changes happening so quickly it’s uncertain what that could mean for them in the long-term.


“Urban Light” by Chris Burden has been a bright spot on Wilshire for LACMA since 2008.

(2010 Museum Associates, LACMA)


Museums and galleries almost everywhere are involuntarily closed indefinitely. The basic business model of the museum is being disrupted by having these physical spaces shut down. Museums are job creators -- there are more than 35,000 museums in the U.S. and they support more than 726,000 jobs and contribute $50 billion to the U.S. economy per year; however, those numbers are being drastically affected and are creating large economic consequences. The American Alliance of Museums (AAM) has estimated one third of these museums might not be able to re-open. According to ArtForum, some museums such as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), plan to pay hourly and part-time workers through the duration of their temporary closure, but other museums in the area, such as the Broad, and others around the country like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York have stated that they will only pay workers until a fixed date and then plan to reassess the state of the pandemic and their future options. Originally, the Met planned on paying workers until April 4, but extended it until May 2 at which point they had to start laying off workers. Others began layoffs much earlier. The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles laid off all ninety-seven of its part-time staff members, cutting their entire workforce by fifty percent. Additionally, the Hammer Museum at UCLA has laid off 150 of its part-time student employees since the campus has shut down.


The Hammer Museum explores the capacity of art to impact and illuminate our lives through its collections, exhibitions and programs.


The plans above show that there aren’t many available options to preserve the sector and its workers at this time, as a result COVID-19 has put into question the resilience of museums both in the short term and long term. The Met has projected a $100 million in lost revenue and the Smithsonian Institution, comprising more than twenty museums, has estimated $22 million in losses resulting from the closures thus far. The $2 trillion stimulus package that President Trump signed on March 27, allocated $7.5 million to the Smithsonian alone, and about $230 million for the arts and humanities sector. While this is welcome, the AAM originally lobbied for $4 billion. The AAM estimated that museums nationwide are losing at least $30 million per day and almost a third of those museums could close permanently because of this health crisis. Because of the discrepancy between the funds allotted and the estimated funds needed, the Met launched a social media campaign with the hashtag #CongressSaveCulture, which encourages supporters to send letters to their representatives pleading for more funding for the arts and culture sector.


Photo Courtesy of @metmuseum on Twitter


Though the stimulus package stipulates that forty percent of the funding “shall be distributed to State arts agencies and regional arts organizations” small independent and private museums are especially at risk of closure. Private museums that are run by individuals or volunteers may have some flexibility in their ability to suspend and resume operations because they don’t have to worry about employee lay-offs during this time, but a global economic recession could result in a steep decline for the tourism industry and therefore continue to threaten all sizes of museums even after non-essential businesses are allowed to resume operations.


Another unexpected result of the museum closures and employee layoffs is theft. The Signer Laren museum in the Netherlands was pillaged on March 30 by thieves who stole a Van Gogh masterpiece, The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring 1884, which was on temporary loan to the museum. Because employees who can’t work remotely, like security guards, were most vulnerable to lay-offs, the museum seemed to have less protection than usual, and with a “shelter in place” order in effect for the Netherlands, there was a lower risk for witnesses. Museums will now likely be on high alert because of this high profile raid; this constitutes another obstacle for museums to overcome during this challenging time.


The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring 1884 by Vincent Van Gogh


Besides economic effects, COVID-19 has forced many museums to quickly transition their collections online and engage the public through alternative means. Museums around the world are opening their doors virtually and providing vast collections of art and historical objects From the Vatican Museums in Rome to the Getty Museum in L.A. to the National Gallery in London, museums are offering interactive tours where the audience is placed into a constructed exhibition space and can click on different pieces to learn more about them. Other features include audio guides, such as visitors might wear if they were physically visiting a collection, and dynamic landing pages on websites that guide visitors through to the digital experiences.


While this does reduce barriers of access such as travel and cost which prohibit many from visiting these museums in person even outside of this pandemic, it does exclude those without regular and easy access to the internet who alternatively could access free museums such as the National Gallery or Natural History Museum in London. And while these free tours help maintain public engagement, they don’t offer a viable revenue stream for museums looking to supplement their usual sources of income. Cuseum, a platform dedicated to helping museums engage with the public through digital means, explored possible options for new revenue in this digital age and mused that since disposable income will be lower for the average citizen during and after the course of Coronavirus they will be less willing to pay for content such as digital reproductions of museum works, even though that’s one of the few ways museums could still bring in money remotely.


The physical space of the museum that Coronavirus is taking away presents another aspect of this ongoing struggle. As Tristram Hunt, Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, points out, museums provide a point of “human contact, reflection, communal space, hope” which is blocked by temporarily locked doors and possible permanent closures. For example, the New York Times calls the Underground Museum in Los Angeles not only “one of the most important destinations for black art in the country but also a crucial gathering place for its working class Arlington Heights neighborhood.” While museums are figuring out how to still bring art into the isolated world, some such as the Underground Museum are also trying to figure out how to hold tight to their community ties and support those who rely on them as a cultural institution. Local businesses also comment on how they miss the rush of patrons that resulted from exhibitions and events at the museum, showing how integral these spaces are in their own right, but also how their trickle-down effects have even further reaching impacts on the economy.


Artists of Color was The Underground Museum’s third exhibition curated by our co-founder Noah Davis. It presented color-driven work in the form of monochrome, hard-edge and color field painting, sculpture and immersive installations.


The path to the future is uncertain. Museums that have tried to reopen such as those in Hong Kong, where COVID-19 cases were few and contained early, have had to close again after a resurgence in new cases. This could indicate that even after signs of threat dissipate museums will have to be cautious with their plans. The UK, for example, anticipates a disruption to “normal life” for six months. Some, such as curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist of the Serpentine Galleries in London, are calling for a vast public arts project such as the one initiated by Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Great Depression to stimulate the arts and infuse financial stability into the sector. Depending on how long these shut-downs continue, the need for more funding and extended help may become crucial for the majority in this industry. Museums and the Arts industry overall have been debilitated by COVID-19, but are vital to the continued hope and spirit of the public to get through difficult times. Though this disease will have far-reaching and long-lasting effects on the industry, time will tell if it may also produce a resurgence in creativity and a new appreciation for all that museums provide.

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