May 18, 2022

LOS ANGELES – Fulton Leroy Washington (known as Mr. Wash), who began painting during his time on a nonviolent drug crime, looked forward to being part of the Hammer Museum’s Biennale – its first museum exhibit – before the pandemic forced the doors closed a few months before the exhibition opens. “I was starting to build excitement,” said Washington. “Then disappointment set in.”

The “Made in LA 2020” show was installed in June and is still in operation. But the public wasn’t allowed to see it.

Los Angeles, where the coronavirus pandemic was particularly severe, is the largest city in the country and its museums haven’t even reopened since the pandemic last March. The ongoing closure is costing its museums millions of dollars in lost revenue every day, and transports the city back to a pivotal moment when an influx of artists and galleries and an expanding museum scene led some to declare Los Angeles the creative hub of the contemporary art world.

“It’s frustrating to see crowded malls, retail spaces, and airports, but museums are completely closed and many have not reopened at all in the past 10 months,” said Celeste DeWald, executive director of the California Association of Museums. “There’s a unique influence on museums.”

The city is an outlier. In recent weeks, museums in Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago, all of which have less severe eruptions, have been allowed to reopen at reduced capacity. And New York museums, which reopened in late August, have stayed open, though cases of virus and death have re-emerged in the fall and winter.

While the outlook for virus in Los Angeles had improved dramatically since last month, as a surge overwhelmed hospitals and funeral homes, the county continues to see more new virus cases every day than any other in America.

Some Los Angeles museum directors are reluctant to government regulations that have forced them to remain closed even if commercial businesses have been allowed to resume operations (and art galleries are now open by appointment).

“When they opened art galleries and shopping malls, I said, ‘That doesn’t feel right,” said Ann Philbin, the hammer’s director. “Our museums are real places of calm, healing and inspiration – they help people a lot.”

Some museums in other parts of the state have reopened, at least for a short time, including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which was open for two months from October before it had to close again.

But now all museums in the state must be closed indoors (outdoor areas can be used), which costs $ 22 million a day, according to the museum association. The estimated total revenue loss for 2020 is more than $ 5 billion, including science centers, zoos and aquariums, according to the association.

An email statement from the office of Gavin Newsom, the governor of California stated that “museums are critical to the fabric of our society,” but warned that they remain “high risk environments because they Attracting visitors from across the state and across the nation, increasing the risk of transmitting the virus. “

“In addition, visitors often stay in museums for longer periods of time,” the statement continues, “which in turn increases the risk of transmission.”

In Los Angeles, the ongoing museum closings have hurt not only admission and membership, but event rental, fundraising, and other revenue-generating activities.

“It hurts,” said W. Richard West Jr., president and chief executive officer of the Autry Museum of the American West, hoping that museums of limited capacity could reopen, “so the public knows we are not dead. ” . ”

The pandemic hit Los Angeles museums amid a variety of activity: major renovations at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Hammer; the success of Broad; the establishment of the Frieze Los Angeles Art Fair; and new director at the Museum of Contemporary Art (Klaus Biesenbach) and the Institute for Contemporary Art in Los Angeles (Anne Ellegood).

Two of the city’s new flagships had to postpone 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 are particularly hard hit. Sales at the Museum of African American Art on the third floor of a Macy’s store are down 68 percent. “We’re in an open retail area,” said Keasha Dumas Heath, the museum’s executive director, at a State Assembly Arts Committee hearing on February 2 on how to reopen art activities safely. “People don’t understand why we’re closed.”

Artists in particular feel the effects. One of the most anticipated exhibitions of the year, the Hammer Biennale “Made in LA 2020” with its additional presentation in the Huntington Library, the Art Museum and the Botanical Garden, has been postponed until the end of this year. The delay hasn’t given the 30 performers on the show a crucial opportunity to attract attention.

“This show can make or break a career,” said Philbin. “It’s a really important show for these artists – it can bring them galleries – and it’s not happening for any of them right now.”

Due to the museums’ lengthy closings and crowded exhibition calendars, some shows may have to close without ever being seen by the public. Michelangelo’s drawings at the Getty Museum were only open to the public for six days. Another one in Mesopotamia was due to open shortly after the museum closed on March 14th.

In April last year, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art was expecting the opening of the first international retrospective by the Japanese painter Yoshitomo Nara. The artist, known for his disturbing portraits, traveled twice from Tokyo to Los Angeles to oversee the installation of the exhibition, which however never opened.

Several Los Angeles museum directors said most of their attendance came from city dwellers, not tourists, to claim they were allowed to resume full operations. And some suggested that museum-goers don’t dwell on art as long as others would expect.

In a call to reopen museums last fall, the state museum association cited research by the California Academy of Sciences which found 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 viewing a single work of art averages 29 seconds.)

Michael Govan, the director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, said he was impressed with the inconsistency in the museum’s store, which is allowed to stay open as it qualifies as a trade, as are art galleries, which are often significantly smaller than museums. Museums, he argued, provide a public service.

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

In Los Angeles’ largest museums, authorities said it would be easy to enforce distancing measures. “We have 100,000 square feet and a limited number of people in the museum,” said Terry L. Karges, executive director of the Petersen Automotive Museum.

Newsom’s recently proposed budget was $ 25 million for small museums and theaters, and $ 15 million for the California Arts Council of the California Creative Corps – funded by related private donations – that allow artists to create messages for the public Health should be adjusted.

“We know they are in trouble,” said another email statement from Newsom’s office on state institutions. “We also know that people of all ages look to these organizations for hope, healing, connection and joy.” However, the statement added that the guidelines for museums “are designed to keep people safe to minimize fall rates and to ensure we don’t overload our intensive care units”.

According to state guidelines, museums cannot open their doors if they are in districts that have an average of more than seven new cases per day and 100,000 people. Los Angeles County has reported an average of more than 40 new cases per day and 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 aid budget to $ 50 million. “California is the last state in which indoor museums can be reopened nationwide,” said committee chairs in a February 4 letter co-signed by 250 cultural institutions.

“While we understand that caution is needed to prevent the spread,” the letter went on, “we also know that no industry can survive being closed for over a year.”

Not all museums in Los Angeles are pushing for a reopening. “We have to put the safety of our employees and our public in the foreground,” said Biesenbach of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), where total revenue has decreased by 26 percent, membership by 32 percent and admissions by 50 percent.

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

Others strive to let people back in. “We haven’t given up,” said DeWald from the museum association. “We continue to advocate that museums can adopt protocols and use existing government guidelines to make their spaces safe.”