Museums, galleries ask: What will a reopening post COVID-19 closures look like?

'Museums will never again exist in the way they did [at] the beginning of 2020'
The first annual "Noon Years Eve" at miSci was a family-oriented celebration with activities on Dec. 31.
PHOTOGRAPHER:
The first annual "Noon Years Eve" at miSci was a family-oriented celebration with activities on Dec. 31.

Categories: Art, Entertainment, Life & Arts

A stroll through the Albany Institute of History & Art or a family trip to miSci will look and feel different after these organizations are allowed to reopen.  

Just how different?

That’s the question that galleries, museums and art centers across the Capital Region are grappling with. 

“It’s not even a new normal. It’s an existential crisis. Museums will never again exist in the way they did [at] the beginning of 2020,” said Erika Sanger,  the executive director of the Museum Association of New York. 

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Some may add hand sanitation stations and shields at visitor services, limit the number of people allowed in the building at a time, rearrange staff workspaces and modify traditional programming. 

That list hardly scratches the surface of the changes these institutions will most likely have to implement, though as of last week, local museums had not received guidance from New York State on what sort of measures they should put in place once they reopen. 

“We are working on letting the state know that we need guidance,” Sanger said. 

Arts organizations are part of the fourth phase in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s reopening plan for New York State. All arts organizations have been combined into one under the plan, though each has vastly different operations and audiences. 

“We can control the environment in a museum setting in a way that a performing arts venue can not. That’s [important] to recognize,” Sanger said. 

Tammis Groft, the executive director of the Albany Institute, is considering introducing timed ticket entry, so it’s easier to control how many people are in the building at once. 

“We’re also looking at our galleries and how many people can be in each of our galleries at the same time to make sure that social distancing is adhered to,” Groft said. 

The Institute will also have to guide people through the galleries in a more direct way, using signage and encouraging people to maintain proper social distancing measures. 

“I think what’s interesting is so many of our people in our community have already been practicing these protocols when [they’re] going to the grocery stores, going out in public. So I think people will be used to doing it here at the museum,” Groft said. 

The Institute, as well as The Arts Center of the Capital Region, plans to open in phases. 

The Arts Center not only has a gallery space but runs many popular art classes/workshops and summer camps. According to CEO Elizabeth Reiss, they’re hoping to open some classes by July 1.

“One of the reasons we picked a hard date like July 1 was we thought it was a safe bet because we’ve got to start hiring artists and planning classes. It’s hard to keep moving the deadline so first, we went with a fairly conservative deadline,” Reiss said. 

They already have to lower enrollment for summer camps to ensure that there’s enough space for students to practice social distancing. 

“We are then looking at bringing more interns or what kind of staffing structures we need to make sure kids practice social distancing. In our camps, we know we need more staff, in our adult classes we may not need those kinds of proctors. We’re then going through financial models to see if we can afford it.

If you lower our enrollment and increase our staffing we may not be able to afford it,” Reiss said. 

The Arts Center has been getting some classes online as well, mostly those that don’t require students to use specialized tools and materials, and it hopes to open the gallery space in the fall. 

A moving target

However, reopening is a moving target, which means Reiss, Groft and many others are constantly creating contingency plans. 

“Everyone that I know is running scenarios,” Sanger said. “What happens if we get to open June 1st? What happens if we get to open July 1st? What happens if I’m not allowed to open until September? How do you strategically plan and develop protocols within each institution? And each institution will have to develop their own.” 

Schenectady’s miSci, which traditionally hosts multiple school groups each week, is looking into how to restructure its exhibit space, which typically features interactives. 

“We will attempt to reduce the amount of stuff on our floor so people can explore with safe distances between interactives,” said Gina Gould, the president of miSci. 

Then there’s the question of how the museum might continue its popular summer camps, which serve young students from around the Capital Region.

Gould and her team are exploring digital options as well as how to have students physically attend the camps while adhering to social distancing measures. 

“I don’t think people understand how many children a year we serve and how many teachers we support every year in science education because when you come out of undergraduate school with a teaching degree for elementary school, it’s not a science degree. We support our teachers because they’re on the frontlines of all this and without us, they don’t have a network,” Gould said. 

Due to the temporary closure brought on by COVID-19, miSci furloughed most of its staff, with only four members remaining. It’s not the only institution to have to do so, according to Sanger. 

“We estimate that 50 percent of museum employees are furloughed or have been laid off in New York State alone, so that’s 30,000 people,” Sanger said. 

According to a recent survey by the Museum Association, 44 percent of museums in the Capital Region recently laid off staff members. 

Museums make an annual $5.4 billion dollar impact on New York state’s economy, according to Sanger, and the industry is losing $3.5 million dollars each day that the organizations are closed. 

“Unlike in previous economic downturns, when the spigot might have been turned off slowly, two-thirds of our sector’s revenue was lost overnight. . . . I am not underestimating to say this is a catastrophic event for our national museum sector,” Sanger said. 

On top of reduced staffing, some institutions, like miSci, are tasked with caring for and restoring historic objects and art, and administrators fear that the financial losses put their collections in jeopardy. 

“Unlike a children’s museum or a science center, we have to concern ourselves too about the care of the collection and the archives because they’re invaluable,” Gould said.

“If something happened to them, that’s the Capital Region’s and in particular, Schenectady’s legacy. I think people really take it for granted . . . the legacy of what was created here by GE and others that were spun off from GE changed the world. Our collections chronicle that.”

For now, Gould is looking into digital programming that would highlight miSci’s collection. The Albany Institute is doing something similar, bolstering its website and adding educational activities, as well as featuring some of the popular aspects of its collections. 

“Our website has always been our front door since we’ve had it but I think it’s been refreshed, painted and has seen a lot more action,” Groft said. 

While each of these organizations is restructuring and reorganizing, many are just looking forward to the day they can reopen, whenever that may be and whatever it may look like. 

“We’ll see what it looks like on the other side of this. I think people will welcome the opportunity to [go] back and enjoy the things that people have always enjoyed doing with just a different point of view,” Groft said. 

Not their first pandemic

This pandemic isn’t the first that the Albany Institute, founded in 1791, has witnessed. 

“There was a cholera epidemic in the 1840s and we have lots of material in our library about that,” Groft said. The Institute’s librarian is also looking through the archives to see how the pandemic of 1918 impacted the Capital Region. 

The only other time that the Institute closed due to a global crisis was during World War II. 

“The community was actively focused on doing a lot of other things and during that time period, the museum closed its doors,” Groft said. 

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