Re-opening or Re-vision? Museums Evolving in a Post-Pandemic World

Our regional museum conference has been postponed, unsurprisingly, due to closures and delays around the global pandemic. The conference theme however, remains disturbingly appropriate. Working in a museum, and clearly understanding I am lucky to have a job and an income, the idea of “Museums Evolving” defines the daily experience. After weeks of closed sites and inaccessible galleries, planning has begun for the return of our guests, the chance to share our artifacts and stories, to contribute to our community, to again elicit joy and excitement, and maybe earn some revenue. But in the aftermath of the closure what we will be? Do museums simply adopt cleaning and distance requirements and resume interrupted activities? Or, as the world continues to bury its dead, do museum operations need to evolve, adjusting or transforming to accommodate the new realities of post-shutdown? How can we best utilize our assets to “share and inspire meaningful connection in a recovering world?” 

Museums have handled the shutdown in various ways. Some cut staffing, in some cases drastically, or directors and top-level staff have taken pay cuts, to save costs in an effort to survive. Others will cease to exist due to a lack of funding and support. Some closed the doors and carried on, scrambling to develop new ways to engage or build on existing assets to maintain an audience. Staff who still have jobs have been learning to video-conference, connect with digital assets to develop stories delivered on social media, producing educational content to be posted on websites, maintaining quiet but secure buildings and outdoor spaces, balancing fund-raising, and planning for financial shortfalls unlike anything ever experienced. 

In my own work I am trying to understand the next steps. In March, like many museums, we quickly built a collaborative effort that called upon the creative work of a team from archives, curatorial, programs, and marketing staff to produce digital content. We are lucky to have been supported in developing material in a new way. Ideas have been pitched by many people, not just curators, and projects have taken forms that we never had time to pursue previously: podcasts and short videos, focused on both collections items and wider ranging themes, but approached in less formal tones, interjected with humor and individual voices. The digital stories that have been shared on social media are collections-based, mostly developed in-house, and have been popular with our online audience. But as we move into planning to physically re-open, we must transition these stories somehow, and decide if they will continue, who will guide them, and how the efforts will be staffed and funded when bricks and mortar operations compete for resources and priority. 

Other museums have undertaken similar efforts, sharing or repurposing educational material for homebound visitors around the globe. This re-focus on digital engagement is an unexpected by-product of the shutdown. Directors of three prominent art museums recently suggested that the closure has allowed their institutions to see improvements in not only digital reach, but in other areas as well, such as emphasizing local audiences, improved communications, and changes in the ways their staff works–moving in directions that are collaborative, adaptable, and flexible. 

Smaller museums (those who are surviving) have experienced some of these same benefits in building digital engagement through educational programming, improving collaboration, and expanding communication, but they are also experiencing difficulties, for example in securing needed supplies. The flexibility that was so apparent in the fast decision-making around the initial shut down continues into the problem-solving that is happening around re-opening. In planning for cleaning and ensuring a continuing supply of products and safety equipment, or strengthening collaborations and developing consistent regional expectations, museums are getting creative, sharing information, and supporting new ways of working. They are evolving.

“It is likely that we and our institutions will need to take more, rather than fewer risks than formerly. We will probably have to be much more nimble and flexible to stay relevant and keep up with sudden sweeping changes. We may need to give less attention to long-term planning and more attention to a continuous process of strategic thinking.”  

Avi Decter and Ken Yellis, AASLH

While planning for the transition back to a physical place, to welcoming guests to our spaces again, a number of museum leaders are posing difficult questions about what comes next. Concerns center on how to best serve our communities and what museums should be, post-pandemic. What can we do that was not possible, or needed, before? 

A pointed question, asked by James Steward at the Princeton University Art Museum, asks how privilege comes into play: what can those of us who can (who will survive, who have financial resources), actually do? In a talk where he explores his concern for museums and the future of civic spaces, Steward explores what museums and other gathering places will become in a time of social distancing. He provides specific answers to how the current threats–both the pandemic and the economic fallout–demand something different. His suggestions include, most importantly: 1. extending institutional commitment to equity and inclusion; 2. building partnerships to overcome the digital divide; and 3. turning to collections to shape powerful stories. Steward concludes, “Beyond surviving, museums help us live,” asserting that museums serve as unique, important civic spaces, and in emphasizing our responsibilities to community-building, that museums will still provide important opportunities to gather, understand, and explore. 

To live up to this ideal, to be potentially powerful social spaces, museums must adapt. Some, like the Philbrook Museum of Art, have already started. In describing his museum’s rapid response to the changing demands brought on by COVID-19, the museum’s CEO says that there was “a realization that our mission to connect the community to art and gardens was not on pause, it was just moving to new platforms.” Similarly, the University of Michigan Museum of Art understands the potential for altered visitor behaviors as a chance to pivot. According to their director, we need to:

“re-envision our enterprise as experiences for people along a spectrum of physical and virtual environments, with the building as just one of those.” 

Tina Olsen, UMMA Director 

What does the museum experience become when guests are no longer able to physically visit, or event attendance is severely constrained by health and safety limitations? All (surviving) museums will face such challenges, whether a huge, internationally recognized art or natural history institution, a regional or campus collection, or a specialized history museum. We can no longer rely on content shaped for primarily on-site delivery. 

But our assets are not limited to our on-site exhibits and collections. Why do people visit museums? To experience our artifacts, yes, but also for our events, our buildings, our campuses, our shops, our restaurants and gathering places, our friendly and knowledgeable staff, our unique atmospheres, to find an opportunity to connect. With spaces empty of programs and galleries devoid of visitors, we risk becoming unused and irrelevant. How can we build on our assets–myriad in form–to not only remain relevant, but to help during re-opening, to move forward into whatever post-shutdown recovery looks like? 

At the end of 2019

The New Art Examiner has just posted a new issue that looks back at 2019. Included is my review of Nirmal Raja’s thoughtful exhibition that closed in December at The Alice Wilds here in Milwaukee. It was a beautiful installation of work that explores place, boundaries and connections, process, and the impossibility of control, among other things. Although I am always sad to see a good exhibition close, I am excited to see what comes next for this inquisitive and engaging artist.

The temporary nature of gallery display, coupled with publication deadlines, requires writing about exhibitions that have already closed. This is so frustrating! To counter the seemingly nonsensical act of post-exhibit reviews, here’s a pitch for a couple of impressive shows to see quick before they disappear:

Tom Uttech: Into the Woods, is at the Museum of Wisconsin Art until January 12, 2020. This is a magical exhibition of work by an artist with a very specific vision. I was familiar with his work from a major acquisition at a former museum. This exhibition put that substantial painting into marvelous context. Accompanied by the artist’s black and white photography, the show includes impressive works from throughout his long career. The variety and consistency of the work are instructive and mesmerizing. This was a difficult exhibition to leave, as there is so much to look at and revel in. Shane McAdams has a wonderful review, but try to get to West Bend and see it, as when will you be able to see all of these canvases and photos together again?

Installation view, “Tom Uttecht: Into the Woods,” at MOWA.

A very different experience is at the Art Institute of Chicago with the exhibition In a Cloud, in a Wall, in a Chair: Six Modernists in Mexico at Midcentury. Also on view until January 12, 2020, this show is fascinating, well-researched, and gorgeously installed. Exploring the collaborative and individual efforts of six artists and designers working in Mexico in the mid-twentieth century, the installation highlights weavings, furniture, sculpture, prints, and photography by Clara Porset, Lola Álvarez Bravo, Anni Albers, Ruth Asawa, Cynthia Sargent, and Sheila Hicks. This is a great opportunity to see some gorgeous work that is rarely shown.

It also brought to mind the wonderful surrealist exhibition, organized a few years ago by the LACMA and the Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico, In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States. Makes me want to learn more about post-revolutionary Mexico.

What will 2020 bring? Maybe some reading and research about Mexico! But I’m also looking forward to seeing the 2020 Wisconsin Artists Biennial, January 25–March 29, 2020 at MOWA, and finally making it to the Wisconsin Triennial: 2019 before it closes February 16 at MMoCA. So many exhibitions, so little time!

Objects Redux @ Racine Art Museum

Harvey Littleton, Reflections, 1969

The Nov/Dec issue of the New Art Examiner includes my review of the Objects Redux exhibitions, an ambitious project on view at the Racine Art Museum into January 2020.