From Coast to Coast, Museums in COVID Hot Spots Are Reevaluating Their Long-Awaited Reopening Plans

California has already ordered museums to shut down again. Will Texas and Florida follow suit?

Visitors in face masks appreciate a Kehinde Wiley at the San Antonio Museum of Art. Photo courtesy of the San Antonio Museum of Art.

Since states across the US began lifting lockdown restrictions in May, reopened museums have adapted by adding a number of health and safety measures.

Hand-sanitizing stations, mandatory face masks for staff and visitors, and social distancing guidelines, sometimes with one-way routes through galleries, are the new normal. A few institutions are even checking guests’ temperatures upon arrival.

Still, with outbreaks in many states intensifying, it appears that reopenings may have been premature—and they are forcing museums in new hot spots to consider closing once again.

We checked in with institutions in the new “big three” red zones of Texas, Florida, and California to see how museums there are faring.

Amedeo Modigliani, <em>Léopold Zborowski</em> (circa 1916). Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, gift of Audrey Jones Beck.

Amedeo Modigliani, Léopold Zborowski (circa 1916). Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, gift of Audrey Jones Beck.

Is everything bigger in Texas?

Texas museums got the green light to open on May 1 and initially held back, opting for greater caution. But in the second half of the month, many museums across the state gradually resumed welcoming visitors.

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, led the pack in reopening to members on May 20 and to the public three days later, making it the first major institution nationwide to do so. The San Antonio Museum of Art followed suit on May 28 for the public. Today, open museums in Texas include San Antonio’s McNay Art Museum and Fort Worth’s Amon Carter Museum of American ArtKimbell Art Museum, and the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.

“Since reopening our doors in May, we’ve heard that the museum has offered a welcome escape during these uncertain times,” Émilie Dujour, the PR and digital communications manager of the San Antonio Museum of Art, told Artnet News in an email. “As long as we can continue to safely offer a means of comfort to our guests, we will remain open in service to our community.”

But the Texas coronavirus numbers over the past month tell a disturbing story. On June 15, the seven-day average for new confirmed cases was just over 2,000. By July 16, that number had ballooned to more than 10,926, and it set a new single-day record of 15,038 positive tests

For now, museums can remain open, but citizens are being encouraged to stay home and, if they do go out, are required to wear face masks in public (in counties with more than 20 cases).

At the Museum of Fine Arts, “we continue to carefully monitor the situation,” publicist Kathryn Jernigan told Artnet News in an email. “Should there be an incidence of transmission on our premises, or should the city advise that we reclose the museum’s facilities, we have procedures in place to do so.”

Closing again “is a possibility,” admitted Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth communications director Kendal Smith Lake in an email to Artnet News. But the institution doesn’t regret reopening: “I can’t look backward. We are a respite for the community and a good choice to get out to do something.”

The Pérez Art Museum Miami. Photo courtesy of the Pérez Art Museum Miami.

The Pérez Art Museum Miami. Photo courtesy of the Pérez Art Museum Miami.

Florida museums testing the waters

In late April, Pérez Art Museum Miami announced that it would remain closed until September 1. At the time, it was the longest planned closure of any US institution. Now, two and a half months later, with Florida announcing the highest single-day record for number of positive tests in any state—it confirmed 15,300 new COVID-19 cases on July 12 alone—that date suddenly seems optimistic.

“I’m still hopeful—we’re more or less six weeks away,” museum director Franklin Sirmans told Artnet News last week.

For Floridians, the stay-at-home order expired May 4, allowing museums to reopen at a reduced capacity. About a month later, cases begin climbing steadily, from just 667 new cases on June 1 to a nationwide record of 15,300 new cases on July 12. In response, the state closed bars again on June 26, but museums are still permitted to welcome visitors.

Before the dramatic uptick in cases, the PAMM had been planning to host some outdoor programming beginning in mid-July. “That is on hold for now,” Sirmans said. “The last couple of weeks have been difficult as far as COVID goes in this state. We are doing everything we can to be as informed as possible, including convening a meeting every couple of weeks with all of our peers, which has been incredibly helpful.”

Just steps from the PAMM, the Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science, which is in large part open-air, reopened on June 15. The Rubell Museum in Miami followed suit on July 1.

But other institutions—including the Bass in Miami Beach, the ICA Miami in the Design District, and Florida International University’s Wolfsonian-FIU, the Patricia & Phillip Frost Art Museum, and the Jewish Museum of Florida—have yet to announce plans to reopen.

“We’re all trying as cultural institutions to look out for each other as much as possible,” Sirmans said.

The Getty Center devoid of guests. Photo by Christopher Sprinkle, courtesy of the Getty Museum.

The Getty Center devoid of guests. Photo by Christopher Sprinkle, courtesy of the Getty Museum.

Closures reinstituted in California

In California, to combat soaring numbers, Governor Gavin Newsom ordered museums in 19 counties, including the state’s disease epicenter of Los Angeles, to once again close their doors on July 1. An order banning all indoor business activities statewide—including museums—followed suit on July 13. The next day, new cases in the state topped 10,000 for the first time.

For some museums, the new order meant canceling pending plans to reopen. The Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach had been aiming for a members-only opening on July 8. Others, like the Hammer Museum at UCLA, were targeting a September reopening.

Only a few institutions had reopened their doors before the restrictions were reinstated. The Bowers Museum in Santa Ana and the Petersen Automotive Museum in LA both began welcoming the public on June 19. The Huntington Library, Art, Museum, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino opened its grounds to members on June 17 and to the public on July 1; the outdoor facilities remain open today.

The first museum in the state to resume welcoming visitors was the Laguna Art Museum on June 12 (the first date it was legally possible to do so).

“Our team had already been planning for reopening, so with guidelines we were ready to reopen with new protocols for health and safety,” Cody Lee, the museum’s director of communications, told Artnet News in an email. With timed ticketing and a strict cap on visitors, “attendance during the time in which the museum reopened was very limited.”

Closing anew is a disappointment, of course. The order to shut down came just three days after Laguna’s public opening of “Granville Redmond: The Eloquent Palette,” which already had its run cut short at its only other venue, the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento. It’s the largest-ever show dedicated to the deaf California landscape artist, and the first in more than 30 years.

Granville Redmond, <em>Sand Dunes</em>. Courtesy of the Laguna Museum of Art.

Granville Redmond, Sand Dunes. Courtesy of the Laguna Museum of Art.

And the reintroduced restrictions scuttled plans at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles to set up by-appointment visits beginning July 7. That means the exhibitions “Ann Greene Kelly” and “Ree Morton: The Plant That Heals May Also Poison” will no longer reopen at all.

Nevertheless, institutions recognize the importance of taking steps to combat the pandemic. “Though we had hoped to keep our doors open longer, the safety and well being of our visitors and staff remains our top priority, as it has throughout the COVID-19 crisis,” reads a statement on the Bowers Museum’s website, promising that the institution “will remain poised to reopen just as soon as it is once again deemed safe.”

The Menil Collection Houston. Photo by Kevin Keim, courtesy of the Menil Collection Houston.

The Menil Collection Houston. Photo by Kevin Keim, courtesy of the Menil Collection Houston.

An abundance of caution

Most of California’s major museums never publicized formal reopening plans, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Museum of Contemporary Art, the Broad, and the Getty Museum, all in LA, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Fine Arts Museums San Francisco, and the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.

And while most museums are back in action in Fort Worth, it’s a different story across much of the rest of Texas. The Contemporary Austin and the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas at Austin remain closed, as does the Menil Collection in Houston.

“The museum’s pandemic response plan ties our reopening to a sustained decrease in local COVID-19 hospitalizations,” Sarah Hobson, the Menil’s assistant director of communications told Artnet News in an email.

In numerous instances, institutions have also opted to push back planned reopenings.

“As much as we wanted to reopen, it didn’t make sense,” Elyse Gonzales, director of Ruby City in San Antonio, told Artnet News. “At this time, with so much still uncertain and frankly very worrisome about our health system’s ability to manage, it is best that we postpone until a moment when San Antonio is in less a precarious situation.”

The African American Museum in Dallas made the same decision. “We have actually had the ‘reopening dates’ and we have had to let all of them pass by because of the surge in the coronavirus in Dallas County,” W. Marvin Dulaney, the museum’s deputy director and COO, told Artnet News in an email. “We have done everything to open—put in place social distancing protocols, purchased masks, and added hand-sanitizer stations throughout our building.”

The Fort Worth Museum of Science and History canceled its planned July 9 reopening just a few days ahead of time. “We’re trying to wait out this peak,” Doug Roberts, the museum’s chief public engagement officer, told Artnet News. He’s visited the city’s neighboring art institutions and felt safe, but a science museum is a different story.

“With fine art, you can observe from a distance,” Roberts explained. “Our museum has all these hands-on activities. People come to play with things, interact with things, touch things, do little science projects—all of those things that make our museum special are impossible, or very difficult to do safely, during COVID.”

In Dallas, six downtown museums, including the Dallas Museum of Art, the Nasher Sculpture Center, and the Crow Museum of Asian Art, issued a joint statement on June 29 that they were not planning to reopen anytime soon.

“We’ve been working through many different and evolving reopening scenarios and timelines throughout the period we have been closed,” Jill Bernstein, director of communications at the Dallas Museum, told Artnet News in an email. “In light of the rising number of COVID-19 cases in our city and state and how quickly the situation is changing locally, we are continuing to monitor developments right now and will confirm a re-opening timeline as soon as we determine we can do so responsibly.”

Dallas institutions are communicating regularly, Nasher director Jeremy Strick told Artnet News in an email. The individual museums may have slightly different timelines, but they agree on the basics: “the sooner we see significant improvement in public health, the sooner we can resume fully normal operation.”

A partial timeline of past museum reopenings in the three states is below. 

May 20

Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

May 26

San Antonio Museum of Art

June 2

Orlando Museum of Art

June 3

Boca Raton Museum of Art

June 12

Laguna Art Museum

June 15

Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science, Miami

June 17

Huntington Library, Art, Museum, and Botanical Gardens, San Marino

June 19

Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth

Bowers Museum, Santa Ana

Petersen Automotive Museum, Los Angeles

June 20

Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Wort

June 24

McNay Art Museum, San Antonio

July 1

Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth

Rubell Museum, Miami

Museums in 19 California counties, including Los Angeles, are ordered to close once again

July 3

Florida Museum of Natural History, Gainsville

July 8

Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, Winter Park, Florida

July 13

All indoor business in California, including museums, must cease

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