Museums Are Back, but Different: A Visitor’s Guide

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This article is part of our latest Fine Arts & Exhibits special report, which focuses on how art endures and inspires, even in the darkest of times.

It has been a singular year for art museums. In most parts of the country, they were closed for several months beginning in March; some are still shuttered. Rarely in living memory has so much art been out of view for so long.

But signs of resilience are everywhere. Many museums have reopened or are in the process of doing so, and it’s clear that things will look a little different to visitors.

On the most visible level of pandemic precautions, some combination of mask mandates, temperature checks, reduced capacity and timed entry is now standard, and will be at least until there’s a coronavirus vaccine.

For those museums able to reopen, “There are countless silver linings,” said Franklin Sirmans, the director of the Pérez.

“The gallery closed on a Friday still in the 20th century,” Ms. Feldman said, referring to the museum’s closing in March. “And on Monday, we went online and entered the 21st century.”

“We’re not breaking even being open at 25 percent,” Mr. Weinberg said, given that most museums rely on ticket sales for a significant portion of their revenue. “But museums exist as public services. Culture and the arts provide hope, solace and comfort in a time of isolation and anxiety.”

To make that happen, a working group of New York City’s art museum directors met, virtually, every week to discuss how to move forward — and they are still meeting. And they formed a task force of 25 city museums of all types, not just art institutions, that made reopening recommendations to the city and New York State.

The Cleveland Museum of Art reopened June 30, and at first it kept its smaller galleries closed.

“We were concerned that social distancing would be a challenge,” said William Griswold, Cleveland’s director. “But we rapidly gained the confidence to reopen more.” With the exception of one gallery, the museum is back.

Timed ticketing and purposeful distancing measures, along with a cautious public, have meant fewer visitors. But that has also created an appealing atmosphere for those who do make it inside. “It feels very safe, partly because there are so few people,” Mr. Griswold said.

The pandemic scrambled the exhibition schedule at pretty much every museum. In some cases, exhibitions scheduled for spring moved to fall, as in the case of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s show “About Time: Fashion and Duration,” now set to open Thursday. Shows that had just opened when museums were shuttered — like the Donald Judd survey at the Museum of Modern Art — have a new life, and a slightly longer run, in their current slot. That exhibition has been extended until Jan. 9.

Artworks on loan that had to travel were a particular issue, pushing some exhibitions into the future a year or more.

Most museums take years to plan and mount a major exhibition, so directors and curators had to think fast. The first thing they did was to look to their permanent collections, which many already thought were an underused resource.

Mr. Tinterow said the general attitude was: “What can we cook with what’s already in the kitchen?”

At the Dallas Museum of Art, a Juan Gris exhibition had to be pushed to 2021, so the 12-person curatorial team got together to build “To Be Determined,” a pandemic-appropriate show about uncertainty itself. On view through Dec. 27, it has 35 works, mostly from the permanent collection.

“Many of the works I’ve not seen in person,” Mr. Griswold said. “Some have never been shown. It’s been a fun project that we never would have done otherwise.”

A separate but related issue is how long exhibitions stay on view. To drive attendance, museums have put pressure on themselves to present new shows frequently. But such efforts can strain budgets and staff members.

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