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The Hudson Valley and Northeast's Museums Start Reopening

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"Homemade" exhibition in Gallery 8 at Magazzino in Cold Spring, curated by Vittorio Calabrese. - PHOTO BY ALEXA HOYER
  • Photo by Alexa Hoyer
  • "Homemade" exhibition in Gallery 8 at Magazzino in Cold Spring, curated by Vittorio Calabrese.

On March 20, with coronavirus cases spiking across the state, Governor Cuomo issued an executive order closing down non-essential businesses in New York. After almost two months of lockdown, New York began reopening on a regional basis starting May 15. As of this writing in late July, almost all businesses in our region have been cleared to reopen—movie theaters, concert halls, and gyms being notable exceptions. Museums, categorized as "low-risk arts," were cleared to open with other Phase 4 businesses in July. (Massachusetts followed a similar trajectory of sudden closings and gradual reopening.)

With this issue, we're launching a multi-part series covering how businesses are standing back up after being closed during the height of the first wave of the pandemic. With outbreaks intensifying around the country, however, the situation remains fluid, and it remains to be seen whether New York will continue to toward fully opening back up this summer. This month, we spoke with museum administrators across the region about how they're coping with new regulations and restrictions while trying to offer visitors a full museum experience.

—Brian Mahoney

The future is masked, says Jodi Joseph, communications director at Mass MoCA. "But we're determined that there will be smiles underneath those masks, and we hope that the art, the architecture, and the natural beauty of this great place continues to inspire our visitors."

After months of uncertainty, museums in the Northeast finally got clarity regarding their reopening dates and plans. On July 6, Massachusetts entered Phase 3, permitting museums to reopen, and the following day, July 7, the Mid-Hudson region entered Phase 4. The initial response from people returning to the museums has been very positive. Being back at Mass MoCA "felt like the first step in a return to normalcy," a visitor told Jodi Joseph on the first day the museum reopened its doors to visitors. 

Just three days after their opening on July 11, Mass MoCA in North Adams had seen 1,500 visitors. These visitors now have access to new and old art exhibits that have been dormant for four months like "Kissing Through a Curtain," which includes work by Kim Faler and Justin Favela, among others. Although the exhibit originally opened in March, its explorations of uncertain intimacy, are more pertinent than ever now, in the era of socially distancing. 

"The questions the exhibition explores about translation, meaning, language, and communication are even more urgent," says Joseph. "Now as we face a global crisis and as anxieties over racial relations escalate in this country and are being witnessed worldwide."

Powerhouse museums like Mass MoCA the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown have been eagerly awaiting this directive from Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker and began to welcome the public the second weekend of July. Similarly, in the Hudson Valley, Cold Spring art museum Magazzino reopened to the public on July 10, and the Thomas Cole House, a national historic landmark, has had its grounds open since July 3.

Dia:Beacon will reopen to the public on August 7. Admission will be by advance reservation only; timed tickets will be available beginning August 3 on its website. Like other regional museums, Dia will observe strict health and safety measures—including required face coverings for staff and visitors—and enhanced cleaning protocols.

A Gathering Economy

Summer is typically the busiest time of year for museums. But with lockdown eating into that peak season, revenue is down across the board for everything from event tickets to gift shop sales. The Thomas Cole House, which hosts an average of 10,000 guests annually between spring and fall, has lost $300,000 out of their budget through a loss in ticket sales, projected donor gifts, and fundraisers because of the pandemic. Earned revenue from ticket sales for onsite performances and museum admission account for 70 percent of the annual budget at Mass MoCA, which sees about 300,000 visitors a year. Additionally, Mass MoCA's initial closure in April led to the layoff of 120 staff members out of 165. 

Museums are not only important cultural resources for their local communities, they are also a key tourism engine, drawing people from all over to stay at local hotels and eat in restaurants. With months of stay-at-home orders, economic regions reliant on tourism have struggled. Specifically, the Berkshire region is "disproportionately reliant on tourism and hospitality," says Joseph. The economy "is built on the most hopeful of things, a social economy, or a gathering economy."

Now with museums reopening, they can now once again gain revenue for the rest of the summer, contribute to their local economies, and continue to inspire their visitors through art. "Art is important in people's lives and I think these last several months have reinforced that significance in a lot of people who took the fact that museums were always available," says Vicki Saltzman director of communications at the Clark. "When museums weren't available, they realized it left a hole in their lives."

The museums had to adjust for reopening by implementing a host of social distancing and sanitary measures to ensure the safety of guests like requiring masks and capping attendance. Overall, after their successful first weekends of being open, the museums feel confident in their safety protocols.

In Catskill, the Thomas Cole House's interior remains closed to the public, but guests can explore the estate grounds by reserving an "Outdoor Explore Kit," which includes souvenirs, walking directions to the Catskill Creek, and a guidebook. A limited number of timed slots are sold per hour to allow for social distancing on the site and visitors can retrieve their kits through no-contact pickups. 

Magazzino reduced capacity to 10 percent, capping attendance to 100 people a day, 30 at a time. So far, the museum has seen about 70 visitors a day on weekends. In a futuristic twist, Magazzino has also been providing guests with EGOpro Active tags to help them maintain social distancing. When visitors interact with someone not in their group at a distance of less than six feet, the device—worn on a lanyard around the neck— will start buzzing and lighting up

While acknowledging the "big responsibility" that comes with reopening and ensuring their visitors' safety, Magazzino director Vittorio Calabrese noted that many people have been visiting the Hudson Valley to go hiking because they have not had much else to do. "It helps that we've actually become an outlet for this stream of visitors that is actually coming to the Hudson Valley," says Calabrese.  

A Few Small Repairs

While closed, these museums have made use of this rare time off for projects spanning the gamut from maintenance to curatorial undertakings. For example, The Clark has been adding their outdoor exhibition called "Ground/Work," which includes installations from six contemporary artists. 

Mass MoCA has been using this time to install a new exhibit by Wendy Red Star called "Children of the Large-Beaked Bird" in their kid-centric gallery. "We've been hard at work, making new art, bringing new art experiences to the public who we look forward to welcoming back to see, again, within 250,000 square feet of art, which includes over 40,000 square feet of brand new, never-before-seen art," says Joseph.

The Thomas Cole House has used the pandemic to do some restoration work on their walls that were hand-painted by Cole. The historic site in also installing a wheelchair lift to make the Main House accessible for those of varying mobility that is expected to be finished by fall.  

The pandemic also prompted museums to get creative and begin using digital programming to their advantage. The Clark produced a series called "Clark Connects" which consisted of short videos with curators and other members of the staff discussing certain artworks or exhibits. The museum's education team also designed a plethora of stay-at-home activities for kids like coloring sheets, puzzles, and quizzes.

Magazzino went digital with all their programming in March. The institution produced 10 weeks of digital content, including Instagram lives from artists they work with, for their website and social media accounts. "I think going digital for that time really made us realize that there's an audience that goes beyond our immediate neighbors in the Hudson Valley or New York City," says Calabrese. Magazzino also plans on hosting drive-in movie screenings in their parking lot in August. 

The Italian post-war art museum also took an in-person lecture series they had planned for the spring online. The digital programs are now available to view on Magazzino's website and include short videos highlighting the artworks and exhibits the museum has to offer. 

Thomas Cole House has modified many of their activities and lectures to be offered on their website, as well as a 360-degree virtual tour and remote learning activities. Heather Paroubek, the site's manager of visitor engagement, agrees with Calabrese that the digital revolution catalyzed by the pandemic is here to stay. 

"Something great to come out of this has been the need to reimagine some of the ways that we can enable others to discover this special place, and Thomas Cole's story," Paroubek says. "I'm reminded each day of what a privilege it is to work with this amazing team of out-of-the-box thinkers."

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