L.A. County says museums can reopen. Museums say: Mmm, not so fast
Los Angeles County may have announced that museums can reopen as early as Friday, but of more than a dozen institutions responding to Times inquiries, not one said it was prepared to begin welcoming visitors so soon. Most won’t open for weeks, if not months.
Southern California museums are navigating complicated health and safety protocols while also seeing to the regular work of preparing new exhibitions, caring for art, managing employees and communicating with the public.
Many museums said they need time to carefully review and implement the county’s guidelines, which include limiting the number of people allowed on the premises, checking for COVID-19 symptoms such as coughing and fever, and instructing guests to use hand sanitizer and wear face coverings. Markers should be placed throughout exhibition spaces to promote social distancing, and footpaths should be arranged to promote one-way pedestrian flow, reducing crossflow. The guidelines call for more regular sanitization of frequently touched surfaces and a plan for gathering guest information for contact tracing in the event of an outbreak.
One recommendation — contactless online reservations with timed entry tickets — alone will pose a major technological and logistical challenge to institutions that don’t have such a system already in place.
Among the museums that said Thursday they have not yet settled on a reopening date: the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Getty, which said it expects galleries to open on a phased basis, although no specific timeline has yet been made public. The Broad said it is aiming for midsummer, and the Skirball Cultural Center said it plans to remain closed at least through June 30.
The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and its sister operation at the La Brea Tar Pits have targeted late summer, relying on timed tickets to help regulate the flow of visitors. The Norton Simon in Pasadena estimated reopening in late summer or early fall; the Palm Springs Art Museum, October or November.
In response to The Times query, Craft Contemporary (formerly called the Craft and Folk Art Museum) simply said it is going into planning mode this week.
Artist-run gallery Durden and Ray has organized a sprawling show installed all over L.A. County and seen from sidewalks and streets.
Both of the University of Southern California’s museums, the USC Fisher Museum of Art on campus and the USC Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena, hope to open in tandem with the first day of fall semester, Aug. 17. But a spokeswoman cautioned, “Everything is dependent on the virus.”
A spokeswoman for MOCA echoed that sentiment: “We are very mindfully and deliberately working through all the steps needed to protect our staff and our visitors. We need to take our time doing this, in order to do it right.”
The Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens this week announced that it would reopen its sprawling gardens to the public on July 1, with a preview period for members beginning Wednesday. A spokeswoman said the San Marino institution plans to reopen the indoor galleries incrementally beginning in September.
In Orange County, the Laguna Art Museum said it was reopening Friday with limited capacity and timed-entry reservations, among other protocols.
The L.A. County checklist for museums includes five safety categories and more than 60 items that need to be managed to remain in compliance. But executing those protocols is particularly challenging when daily operations have been radically disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, which is responsible for nearly 70,000 cases and 2,800 deaths in L.A. County.
Exhibition schedules are in flux, and touring shows are dependent upon other institutions reopening on a patchwork schedule according to international, state or local mandates. Installing and staging new shows takes longer now that construction workers need to be social distanced. Vendors on which museums rely for online reservation systems and other services also have been hampered by the virus.
Ann Morrow Johnson had an empty street-facing wall and time on her hands, so she created the Museum of Quarantine. Now neighbors hang their creations.
Elizabeth Merritt, vice president of strategic foresight and founding director of the Center for the Future of Museums at the American Alliance of Museums, wrote in an email that the top challenges facing museums looking to reopen include not just budgeting for, and training staff on, new sanitation and safety procedures, adding signage and installing hand-sanitation stations. It’s also gauging the public’s willingness to return.
The region’s smaller art galleries, which also were given the green light to open with restrictions, will have an easier time limiting the number of visitors but most remain cautious. Gabba Gallery said it plans to remain virtual through July. Gemini G.E.L. plans to reopen by appointment only. Chimento Contemporary is reopening Friday, but with limited hours. Jeffrey Deitch hopes to open around July 11, but Charlie James Gallery said it is leaning toward appointment-based visits through the end of the year.
Two early test cases for the future of museum-going are Spain’s Guggenheim Bilbao, which reopened in early June, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, which reopened May 23. At both places, temperature checks are required for entry, masks must be worn at all times, restroom use is restricted to one person at a time, interactive displays are out and self-guided tours are in.
Although the emerging requirements for museums seem rigorous, these institutions face far fewer challenges than performing arts venues like theaters and concert halls, where social distancing — of not just audience members but also artists — is proving particularly challenging, if not impossible. On Thursday the New York Philharmonic announced that the earliest it will reopen is early 2021.
The Broad Stage in Santa Monica forges ahead with a 2020-21 season that starts outdoors in the fall and moves indoors in January — if it’s safe.
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