Arts

How the second COVID-19 shutdown affects Seattle-area museums and galleries

seattletimes– After a short reprieve that began in August, museums are facing temporary closures once more as new guidance from Gov. Jay Inslee goes into effect this week to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, which causes COVID-19. The new regulations, which took effect statewide midnight Monday and will continue at least through Dec. 14, mean an end to the limited operations Seattle-area museums had just begun, employing practices like timed admissions and careful spacing to keep patrons safe.

Ingrid Langston, head of communications and content strategy at the Frye Art Museum, said it was disheartening to close after three weeks of revived operations at the Frye, where much effort had gone into “creating a safe and welcoming environment.” Still, she said, “We are not in denial about the very serious state of the pandemic and are supportive of the measures to curb the spread.”

The Tacoma Art Museum announced its closure with no plan to reopen until after the holidays. “Leadership does not see much likelihood that the museum sector will be allowed to re-open until there is a much lower infection curve,” the museum’s executive director David Setford said in a news release. “In addition, we feel we owe it to the community to help reduce infections, and to our staff to be able to have some control over their lives for the next 6 weeks or so.”

Amada Cruz, Seattle Art Museum’s (SAM) director and CEO, said in a statement: “Since the downtown Seattle Art Museum reopened on September 11, it’s been a joy to see visitors safely enjoying an intimate experience of the art. We are very sad to close the doors once again, just two months later — but we also believe that this is a critical moment in this pandemic.”

For the time being, Cruz encouraged patrons to engage with SAM through digital events and platforms.

At the National Nordic Museum, Leslie Anderson, director of collections, exhibitions and programs, could already project an estimate of how the new closure would impact revenue. “Since reopening to the public in the first week of September, the Museum generated approximately 40% of what was budgeted for earned revenue in September and October,” she said in an email. “A complete closure to onsite visitors will eliminate that projected earned revenue.”

She said the Nordic Museum was “committed to following the Governor’s guidelines for public safety,” and would pivot to virtual programming options, including a book talk from chef Magnus Nilsson and a virtual Julefest.

“Closure to the public … has really encouraged us to think about the museum without walls and delivering content to a national and international audience,” she said. “And that will be something that stays.”

At some art galleries, especially those that were able to reopen over the summer, the latest regulations won’t mean shutting down. Rather, galleries, like retailers, are allowed to operate at 25% capacity. The concerns raised for gallery owners are different than those at museums — and less daunting, said Greg Kucera, director and curator at Greg Kucera Gallery.

“Many of us have tremendously large spaces that have very large capacity ratings that never really get used unless we’re in the middle of First Thursday,” he said. These conditions are what prompted gallery owners to write to the governor this year requesting that they be allowed to reopen; they ultimately received clearance to operate in compliance with retail guidelines, and many resumed operations over the summer.

The lingering question raised by the new restrictions, he said, was whether his staff would be willing to continue coming into work. It was an operational question, not one of compliance.

“The number [of patrons] it takes … to thrive in a given month is a crazy small number because right now a lot of our sales are on the internet,” he said. Still, the new regulations meant revisiting an earlier plan to host a small audience for a Zoom recording from Sherry Markovitz, whose exhibition “Enclosures” opened in the space Nov. 12. Kucera said it would likely be canceled or limited to “very, very few people.”

“I want to be part of the solution and not part of the problem here,” he said.

But while it’s possible to conduct gallery sales over the phone or email, the Frye’s Langston said the closures meant losing a crucial piece of normalcy, as well as the chance to engage with art.

“People are just under so much stress and I think in conversations with all of my colleagues across museums … we’ve really been excited to step up and offer people a space to have that normalcy … to connect with art and culture and things that can lift us out of our internal spiral of doomscrolling,” she said.

Patrons had reported feeling safe and responded positively to the Frye’s brief reopening, she said: “The arts are a really important part of our community … it meant a lot to them.”

Like the Nordic Museum, the Frye will continue to provide a wide range of virtual programming, including art history lectures, a mindfulness meditation series and family-friendly art activities well suited to “parents trapped at home with their kids.”

Langston noted that the Frye, like many arts organizations, had furloughed staff earlier in the pandemic. She said she hoped that further cuts like these could be avoided. “That’s the big underlying anxiety for all organizations, I think.”

At Wa Na Wari, curators were also devising new, alternative ways to connect with viewers. “We aren’t seeing ourselves as closed but rather open in other ways,” said co-curator Inye Wokoma, who noted that the gallery had been closed and events canceled, even those intended to take place outdoors.

Wa Na Wari’s latest show, “Story Porch,” which is outside, opened at the end of October and will remain installed for six weeks.

“We are dedicated to meeting our mission and that means we will continue to bring people together in safe ways until this moment passes,” he said. Despite having to go through yet another industrywide shake-up, he said, “we won’t get through this without art and artists so we will keep finding ways to make that happen.”

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