Closed nearly a year, empty museums in Los Angeles struggle

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Closed nearly a year, empty museums in Los Angeles struggle
“Levitated Mass” at Resnick North Lawn at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art by Michael Heizer on Dec. 12, 2020. While many museums around the country have resumed operations, those in Los Angeles remain an exception. They have been shut since March. Philip Cheung/The New York Times.

by Robin Pogrebin

LOS ANGELES (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Fulton Leroy Washington (known as Mr. Wash), who began to paint while serving time for a nonviolent drug offense, was looking forward to being part of the Hammer Museum’s biennial — his first museum show — before the pandemic forced the doors closed a few months before the exhibition was to open.

“I started having excitement build up,” Washington said. “Then disappointment set in.”

The show, “Made in L.A. 2020,” was installed in June and is still in place. But the public has not been allowed inside to see it.

Los Angeles, where the coronavirus pandemic has been particularly severe, is the largest city in the nation whose museums have yet to reopen even temporarily since the pandemic struck last March. The prolonged closure is costing its museums millions of dollars a day in lost revenues and setting the city back at a crucial moment when an influx of artists and galleries and an expanding museum scene had prompted some to pronounce LA the contemporary art world’s creative center.

“It’s frustrating to see crowded shopping malls and retail spaces and airports, yet museums are completely closed, and many have not been able to reopen at all for the last 10 months,” said Celeste DeWald, executive director of the California Association of Museums. “There is a unique impact on museums.”

The city is an outlier. In recent weeks museums in Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago, which all have less severe outbreaks, have been allowed to reopen at reduced capacities. And New York’s museums, which reopened in late August, have stayed open even as virus cases and deaths rose again in the fall and winter.

While the virus outlook in LA had improved dramatically since last month, when a surge was overwhelming hospitals and funeral homes, the county continues to record more new virus cases each day than any other in America.

Some museum executives in LA are bristling at state regulations, which they say have forced them to remain closed even as commercial entities were allowed to resume business (and with art galleries now open by appointment).

“When they opened up art galleries and indoor malls, I was like, ‘This does not feel right,’” said the Hammer’s director, Ann Philbin. “Our museums function as real places of respite and healing and inspiration; they help people a lot.”

Some museums elsewhere in the state were able to reopen at least briefly, including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which opened for two months starting in October before having to close again.

But now all museums in the state must remain closed indoors (outside areas can be used), which is costing them $22 million a day, according to the museums association. Total estimated revenue losses for 2020 are more than $5 billion, the association said, including from science centers, zoos and aquariums.

A statement from the office of Gavin Newsom, the governor of California, said that “museums are critical to the fabric of our society” but warned that they remain “high-risk environments because they draw visitors from across the state and nation, increasing the risk of transmission of the virus.”

“Additionally, visitors often stay in museums for extended periods of time,” the statement continued, “again increasing the risk of transmission.”

In LA, the museums’ prolonged closure has taken its toll not only on admissions and membership, but on event rentals, fundraising and other revenue-generating activities.

“It’s hurting,” said W. Richard West Jr., president and chief executive of the Autry Museum of the American West, adding that he hoped museums would be allowed to reopen at limited capacity “so the public knows we’re not dead.”

The pandemic hit amid a flurry of activity at LA museums: major renovation projects at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Hammer; the success of the Broad; the establishment of the Frieze Los Angeles art fair; and new leadership at the Museum of Contemporary Art (Klaus Biesenbach) and the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (Anne Ellegood).

Two new flagships in the city have had to push back their opening dates: the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, from spring to fall 2021; and the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, from 2022 to 2023.

Smaller institutions have been hit particularly hard. Revenues at the Museum of African American Art, which is on the third floor of a Macy’s store, have declined by 68%. “We are inside a retail space that is open,” Keasha Dumas Heath, the museum’s executive director, said in Feb. 2 testimony at a state Assembly arts committee hearing on how to safely reopen arts activities. “People don’t understand why we’re closed.”

Artists in particular are feeling the effects. One of the most highly anticipated exhibitions of the year, the Hammer’s “Made in L.A. 2020” biennial — with its complementary presentation at the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens — has been postponed until later this year. The delay has left the 30 artists in the show without a crucial attention-getting opportunity.

“That show can make or break careers,” Philbin said. “It is a really important exhibition for these artists — it can get them galleries — and it’s not happening for any of them right now.”

Because of the protracted shutdown and museums’ crowded exhibition calendars, some shows may have to close without ever being seen by the public. The Getty Museum’s show of Michelangelo’s drawings was open to the public for only six days; another, on Mesopotamia, was scheduled to open just after the museum closed March 14.

Last April, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art was expecting to open what was billed as the first international retrospective of Japanese painter Yoshitomo Nara. The artist, known for his unsettling portraits, traveled to LA from Tokyo twice to oversee the installation of the exhibition, but it never opened.

As they try to make the case that they should be allowed to resume full operations, several LA museum directors said that most of their attendance comes from city residents, not tourists. And some suggested that museumgoers do not linger over art for as long as some would expect.

In an appeal to reopen museums last fall, the state’s museums association cited research from the California Academy of Sciences showing that visitors typically spend less than 20 minutes in exhibitions. (A group of researchers conducted a study at the Art Institute of Chicago and found that the time spent looking at a single artwork averages about 29 seconds.)

Michael Govan, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s director, said he was struck by the inconsistency in the museum’s store being allowed to stay open because it qualifies as commerce, as do art galleries, which are often considerably smaller than museums. Museums, he argued, provide a public service.

“We could be part of the solution,” Govan said.

At LA’s largest museums, officials say, it would be easy to enforce distancing measures. “We have 100,000 square feet of space and a limited number of people in the museum,” said Terry Karges, executive director of the Petersen Automotive Museum.

Newsom’s recently proposed budget included $25 million for small museums and theaters, along with $15 million to the California Arts Council for the California Creative Corps — to be funded through matching private donations — that would hire artists to produce public health messages.

“We know they are struggling,” another statement from Newsom's office said of the state’s institutions. “We also know that people of all ages look to these organizations to find hope, healing, connection, and joy.” But the statement added that the guidance for museums “is focused on keeping people safe to minimize case rates and ensure we don’t overburden our ICUs.”

Under the state guidelines, museums cannot open their doors if they are in counties averaging more than seven new cases per day per 100,000 people. LA County has been averaging more than 40 new cases per day per 100,000 people, according to a New York Times database that tracks the two-week trend.

The state Legislature’s budget committees have asked the governor to increase his cultural relief funding to $50 million. “California is the last state to allow indoor museums to reopen in some capacity statewide,” the committee’s chairs said in a Feb. 4 letter that was co-signed by 250 cultural institutions.

“Although we understand the need for caution to prevent the spread,” the letter continued, “we also know no industry can survive being closed for over a year.”

Not all LA museums are pushing to reopen. “We have to put the safety of our staff and our audience first,” said Biesenbach of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), where total revenues have declined by 26%, membership by 32% and admissions by 50%.

“When the numbers are down and the vaccine is out,” Biesenbach added, “then it would be appropriate to reopen.”

Others are eager to let people in again. “We haven’t given up,” said DeWald of the museum association. “We are continuing to make the case that museums can adopt protocols and use the existing state guidance to make their spaces safe.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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