Museums refocus and reinvent to survive COVID
Capacity limits, declining attendance are hurting revenue
JANE PARKER LIVES in Harvard, and over the years, she has visited the neighboring Fruitlands Museum for big events, like February’s Winterfest.
In early October, Parker returned to Fruitlands to hike for the first time on the museum’s three miles of trails. She met an old friend and they planned to briefly stop in the galleries, then take advantage of the good weather and the safety of the wide-open outdoor spaces on the 215-acre property.
“I’ve never done the trails before. It’s an opportunity,” Parker said.
COVID-19 is changing the way people use museums. And museums struggling with closures and capacity limits are adapting accordingly. Those with outdoor space are taking new advantage of it, while those without must find new ways to attract patrons and ensure their safety.
Fruitlands Museum director Michael Busack said there has been a shift from the museum buildings being the primary attraction to a greater focus on the grounds. Fruitlands started selling tickets to “sunset picnics” Thursday and Friday nights, where families can bring dinner, or buy a boxed kit from the café.
“Typically, we’re a museum. That’s how we market. But we’re a museum in a really beautiful spot,” Busack said of Fruitlands’ location in the hilly apple orchard country between Boston and Worcester. “It’s heartwarming seeing people use the site in a different way.”
Curators have expanded the artwork into the outdoor spaces, setting up explanatory panels along trails with artwork, quotations, and activities that relate to one of the indoor exhibits.
Christie Jackson, senior curator with the Trustees of Reservations, which owns the property, said the goal is to make the art more accessible to people with different COVID comfort levels. “There may be people who want to see objects and art, but they may not be comfortable going into a building, so we expanded what we’re doing outside for this show,” Jackson said.
Gov. Charlie Baker allowed museums to reopen July 6 when the state entered Phase 3 of its reopening plan. But the reopenings came with myriad new guidelines – limited capacity, cleaning and hygiene protocols, requirements for masks and physical distancing – and many art museums have taken more time to plan and adapt.
The Museum of Fine Arts just opened on September 23; the Worcester Art Museum opened on October 1; the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum opened its indoor galleries October 8.
But attendance numbers are still low, whether because patrons are not ready to return, tourists are not visiting, or due to capacity caps. The state lets museums open at 40 or 50 percent of capacity, depending on the virus transmission rate in the surrounding community. Some museums have lower caps due to state guidelines establishing how many people can be in one room, based on square footage.
At Springfield Museums, a cluster of five museums that reopened July 13, spokeswoman Karen Fisk said the museum voluntarily capped capacity at 25 percent “for the comfort and safety of visitors and front-line staff.” That translates to 1,200 people across the five museums, and staff regularly monitor capacity in each building and gallery. “We feel that basically gives people their own visit to the museums,” Fisk said. The museums did hit capacity on summer weekends.
David Slatery, acting executive director of the Massachusetts Cultural Council, said while many museums are attracting patrons, and even selling out their limited capacity, remaining open with such low attendance is financially challenging.
“It’s to keep in the game, for people to remember they’re there, to keep their own employees busy and working,” Slatery said. “But it is not a sustainable business model.”
The Institute for Contemporary Art in Boston is seeing about 30 percent of attendance compared to a typical year and is projecting a $2 million revenue loss this fiscal year, officials said.
The MFA in Boston sold out its opening day and weekend and attracted 1,500 visitors in its first five days after reopening. But with timed-entry slots limiting entrance to 75 visitors an hour, and a gallery capacity of 500 people at any one time, that attendance is still below average. In a statement, the MFA said it is predicting a deficit of around $13 million this year, and it is using a mix of cost containment, fundraising, and reserve funds to bridge that gap. Hours are limited and fewer galleries are open, and the museum laid off dozens of employees.
“With the uncertainty around the pandemic, we developed a new business model to create a more sustainable future for the MFA,” the statement said. “The Museum will be smaller moving forward, and our exhibitions, programming and other offerings will reflect how we must operate in the future—both during and after the pandemic.”
The Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, which opened July 13, has been able to sell just 28 percent of the tickets it sold last August and September, because it has small gallery spaces that are capacity-limited under state guidelines. It is no longer getting bus tours, which had been a big part of fall attendance. “There’s a significant loss of revenue and we are really working hard to both control costs and also develop other sources of revenue,” said chief educator Mary Berle.
The museum is launching a get-out-the-vote campaign featuring images from six contemporary artists and is selling campaign-related merchandise. It is offering virtual programming, some with a “pay what you choose” option. In the museum, docent-led tours have been replaced with recorded audio tours.
Some fortunate museums have large indoor or outdoor spaces. The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams is located in an old mill complex and has 250,000 square feet of gallery space, with multiple enormous galleries.
“We benefit from space – vast, vast amounts of space, both interior and exterior on our grounds,” said Tracy Moore, deputy director of MASS MoCA. The museum reworked ticketing procedures to avoid a bottleneck at the entrance, and visitors can easily socially distance inside.
Moore said the museum anticipated 30 percent attendance once it reopened July 10, but officials have been “pleasantly surprised.” MASS MoCA attracted 13,300 visitors in August – just over half of the 24,500 it attracted last year. September attendance, 9,300 visitors, was actually slightly above last year’s.
MASS MoCA typically benefits from a summer influx of out-of-town visitors attending Tanglewood concerts and the Williamstown Theatre Festival, both of which were cancelled. In normal times, the museum hosts concerts that can attract from 100 to nearly 4,000 people. This year, it was limited to outdoor concerts of 50 or 100 people, as state guidelines changed.
Moore said the museum is anticipating a revenue drop, which it is trying to make up through fundraising.
The deCordova in Lincoln, also owned by the Trustees of Reservations, has an outdoor sculpture garden in addition to the indoor museum. While the indoor space just reopened, business director Kord Jablonski said from the time the sculpture garden reopened May 19 through the end of the September, 55,000 people visited – nearly twice the typical attendance numbers in a comparable period, with three times as many children as usual.
“People are so eager for something to do, and they’re so eager to get outside and away from the Zoom and computer,” Jablonski said. He said the sculpture park “provides an opportunity for rest and solace and a little bit of peace for people during what’s been a remarkably challenging time for everyone.”Jablonski said his hope from talking to visitors is that their desire to find a safe place outdoors will lead to a return to the museum. “Often they’ll say, I didn’t think I enjoyed contemporary art, we came to walk around outside, but this is spectacular and we’re going to come back,” he said.