LOS ANGELES – Fulton Leroy Washington (known as Mr. Wash), who began painting while serving time for a non-violent drug offense, was looking forward to being a part of the Hammer Biennale Museum – his first museum exhibition – before the pandemic forced open the doors. closed a few months before the opening of the exhibition. “I started to get excited,” Washington said. “Then disappointment set in.”
The “Made in LA 2020” show was installed in June and is still in place. But the public was not allowed to see him inside.
Los Angeles, where the coronavirus pandemic has been particularly severe, is the largest city in the country whose museums have yet to reopen, even temporarily, since the pandemic last March. The extended closure costs its museums millions of dollars a day in lost revenue and brings the city back to a crucial time when an influx of artists and galleries and a growing museum scene have prompted some to make Los Angeles the creative hub. from the world of contemporary art. .
“It’s frustrating to see crowded malls, retail spaces and airports, but museums are completely closed and many haven’t been able to reopen at all in the past 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, all of which have experienced less severe outbreaks, have been allowed to reopen at reduced capacity. And New York’s museums, which reopened in late August, remained open even as virus cases and deaths spiked again in the fall and winter.
While the viral outlook in Los Angeles has improved dramatically since last month, when a surge overwhelmed hospitals and funeral homes, the county continues to record more new cases of the virus every day than any other in America.
Some Los Angeles museum executives are bristling with state regulations, which they say forced them to remain closed even as commercial entities were allowed to resume operations (and art galleries are now open by appointment).
“When they opened up art galleries and indoor malls, I was like, ‘That doesn’t sound right to me,'” said Hammer director Ann Philbin. “Our museums function as real places of respite, 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 from October before having to close again.
But now all museums in the state must remain closed indoors (outdoor areas can be used), costing them $ 22 million a day, according to the museums association. The total estimated revenue losses for 2020 are more than $ 5 billion, the association said, including science centers, zoos and aquariums.
A statement from the office of Gavin Newsom, the Governor of California, said that “museums are essential to the fabric of our society,” but warned that they remain “high-risk environments as they attract visitors from all over the world. State and country, which increases the risk of transmission of the virus. “
In addition, visitors often stay in museums for long periods of time, “the statement continued,” again increasing the risk of transmission. “
In Los Angeles, the prolonged closure of museums has impacted not only admissions and memberships, but also event rentals, fundraising and other income-generating activities.
“It hurts,” said W. Richard West Jr., president and CEO of the Autry Museum of the American West, adding that he hoped the museums would be allowed to reopen at a limited capacity “so that the public know that we are not dead. “
The pandemic has struck amid a wave of activity in Los Angeles museums: major renovation projects at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Hammer; the success of the Broad; the creation of the Frieze Los Angeles art fair; and new management at the Museum of Contemporary Art (Klaus Biesenbach) and the Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art (Anne Ellegood).
Two new flagships of the city have 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.
Small institutions have been particularly affected. Revenue for the Museum of African American Art, which is on the third floor of a Macy’s store, fell 68%. “We are inside an open retail space,” Keasha Dumas Heath, the museum’s executive director, said during a Feb. 2 testimony before a National Assembly arts committee on how to safely reopen artistic activities. “People don’t understand why we are closed.”
Artists, in particular, are feeling the effects. One of the most anticipated exhibitions of the year, the Hammer Biennale ‘Made in LA 2020’ – with its complementary presentation at the Huntington Library, the Art Museum and the Botanical Gardens – has been postponed until later this year . The delay left the show’s 30 artists without a crucial opportunity to gain attention.
“This show can make or break careers,” Philbin said. “It’s a really big show for these artists – it can offer them galleries – and it’s not happening for any of them right now.
Due to the extended closure and crowded exhibition calendars of the museums, some shows may have to close without ever being seen by the public. The Getty Museum’s exhibition of Michelangelo’s drawings was only open to the public for six days; another, in Mesopotamia, was due to open just after the museum closed on March 14.
Last April, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art expected to open what was billed as the first international retrospective of Japanese painter Yoshitomo Nara. The artist, known for his disturbing portraits, made two trips to Los Angeles from Tokyo to oversee the installation of the exhibition, but it never opened.
As they tried to argue that they should be allowed to fully resume their operations, several museum directors in Los Angeles said most of their attendance came from locals, not tourists. And some have suggested that visitors to museums don’t dwell on art as long as some would expect.
In a call to reopen museums last fall, the state museums association cited research from the California Academy of Sciences showing that visitors typically spend less than 20 minutes in exhibits. (A group of researchers conducted a study at the Art Institute of Chicago and found that the time spent viewing a single artwork averaged around 29 seconds.)
Michael Govan, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, said he was struck by the inconsistency in the museum’s store being allowed to remain open, as it qualifies as commerce, as are galleries. art, which are often much smaller than museums. Museums, he argued, provide a public service.
“We could be part of the solution,” Govan said.
At Los Angeles’ 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 L. Karges, executive director of the Petersen Automotive Museum.
Newsom’s recently proposed budget included $ 25 million for small museums and theaters, as well as $ 15 million for the California Arts Council for the California Creative Corps – to be funded through matching private donations – which would hire artists to produce. public health messages.
“We know they are struggling,” Newsom said of state institutions. “We also know that people of all ages look to these organizations for hope, healing, connection and joy.” But he added that the guidelines for museums “are aimed at ensuring the safety of people in order to minimize case rates and ensure that we don’t overload our intensive care units.”
According to state guidelines, museums cannot open their doors if they are in counties with an average of more than seven new cases per day per 100,000 population. Los Angeles County averages more than 40 new cases per day per 100,000 population, according to a New York Times database that tracks the two-week trend.
The state legislature’s budget committees have called on the governor to increase his funding for cultural aid to $ 50 million. “California is the latest state to allow statewide covered museums to reopen,” the committee chairs said in a Feb. 4 letter co-signed by 250 cultural institutions.
“While we understand the need to be cautious to avoid the spread,” the letter continued, “we also know that no industry can survive shutdown for more than a year.”
Not all Los Angeles museums are pushing to reopen. “We need to prioritize the safety of our staff and our public,” said Biesenbach of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), where total revenues fell by 26%, members by 32% and admissions from 50%.
“When the numbers go down and the vaccine is out,” Biesenbach added, “then it would be appropriate to reopen.”
Others are eager to let people in. “We haven’t given up,” said DeWald of the museums association. “We continue to argue that museums can adopt protocols and use existing state guidelines to make their spaces safe.”