Published: 17:55, August 29, 2020 | Updated: 18:46, June 5, 2023
New York museums reopen with masks, sanitizers and no crowds
By Bloomberg

One member sanitizes their hands as another member celebrates at The Metropolitan Museum of Art during its first day open to members since March, on Aug 27, 2020. (PHOTO / BLOOM BERG)

After more than five months in hibernation, the museums of New York are slowly starting to reopen, reawakening part of the cultural life of the city.

When there’s turmoil, that’s the time when you want to go to a museum, to have that moment of connection with a work of art. 

Tom Finkelpearl, the city’s former cultural affairs commissioner

On Saturday, the Metropolitan Museum of Art will greet the general public after members were allowed back on Thursday. The Museum of Modern Art just opened this week, the Whitney Museum of American Art will reopen next week and the Guggenheim plans to return in October.

“It’s important psychologically and spiritually for the people of New York City,” said Tom Finkelpearl, the city’s former cultural affairs commissioner. “When there’s turmoil, that’s the time when you want to go to a museum, to have that moment of connection with a work of art.”

A visitor wears a protective mask while looking at artwork at the Museum of Modern Art in New York on Aug 27, 2020. (PHOTO / BLOOMBERG)

With practically no tourists, who usually make up the lion’s share of visitors, and government restrictions on capacity, the impact of museum reopenings will be more symbolic than economic, Finkelpearl said. The fixed costs will remain the same, while the revenue will plunge, he said.

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Countless exhibitions in galleries and museum have been canceled or postponed. The Met alone has already cut 400 jobs and expects to lose US$150 million in revenue due to the pandemic. The picture is even bleaker in the performing arts: Broadway theaters, Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall plan to stay dark until at least next year.

Even at 25 percent of its capacity, the Met, with 2.2 million square feet of exhibition space, can accommodate as many as 2,000 people every hour, said Laurel Britton, senior vice president for revenue and operations. That number is likely hypothetical. The museum doesn’t expect to have more than 4,000 visitors a day, she said. There’s a silver lining: no crowds.

Ann Tenenbaum and Thomas H. Lee at the March 9 opening of "Photography's Last Century" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (PHOTO / BLOOMBERG)

“I think it will increase your enjoyment of the experience,” Britton said. “We are going to be a hyper local museum.”

For the visitors who do come, the experience will be different. At the Met, new procedures will include temperature checks outside on the plaza, timed tickets and mandatory masks. Smaller galleries and coat checks will be closed, water fountains shut down. Open seven days a week prior to the pandemic, the museum will be closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

Some of the Met’s exhibitions had only been on display for a few days before the pandemic prompted lockdowns.

“Photography’s Last Century,” an exhibition of the collection of museum trustee Ann Tenenbaum, had opened just a few days before the closures in March. It’s a display of more than 60 photographs, spanning the 20th century, by Walker Evans, Man Ray, Cindy Sherman and others. The works will enter the museum collection as part of the promised gift from her and her husband Thomas H. Lee, chairman of Lee Equity Partners.

The reopening will be bittersweet for Tenenbaum. Like many other New Yorkers, she lost relatives to COVID-19: her parents. They had traveled from Savannah, Georgia, for the March 9 exhibition opening, and they were proud of their daughter’s collection. It isn’t clear where they contracted the coronavirus, but it could have been at a dinner with friends the night before the opening, Tenenbaum said. Several other diners also became sick.

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“We did have two amazing weeks with them before they died,” she said. “That was a gift. They loved New York so much.”