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October 2, 2020

Cultural organizations have been some of the hardest-hit by the financial impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. In many communities, these institutions were some of the first to close, and will be some of the last to reopen. In fact, the International Council of Museums reports that 1 in 8 museums worldwide may never reopen. In the U.S., an American Alliance of Museums survey shows one-third of our country’s museums —  about 12,000 — could close permanently.

The plight of our nation’s arts institutions will impact not only the fabric of American culture, but also our economy. According to the latest data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis and the National Endowment for the Arts, arts and culture contributed $877.8 billion to the nation’s gross domestic product and the sector employed more than 5 million workers in 2017. Due to pandemic-related closures, more than half of these jobs disappeared between April and July 2020, according to a Brookings Institution report.

Now, after months of closures, many cultural institutions are beginning to chart a path forward and carefully welcome back visitors. The National Gallery of Art made news in July when it announced immediate plans to reopen — one of the first cultural institutions in my city of Washington, D.C., to do so. 

As an arts lover, and after months of working from home and exploring the city streets to stay active in a socially distant world, I was more than ready for something new. But was I ready to go to a museum?

All the Right Precautions

I am certainly not a public health expert, but I carefully read the gallery’s updated visitor guidelines and reasoned that during a museum visit, I would likely spend less time indoors, approach fewer people and touch fewer surfaces than I would during a trip to the grocery store.

After several weeks of debating, I registered for a free timed-entry pass. I selected the first available time slot on a Wednesday morning for what I hoped would be a less crowded visit. Who goes to the National Gallery of Art on a stifling August morning in the middle of a pandemic? 

As it turns out, a lot of people. While the museum’s carefully controlled entry system limits crowding, for those willing and eager to go to a museum or, perhaps, to leave home and go anywhere, the National Gallery was still one of few local options.

I decided to limit my time inside by centering my visit around a special exhibit, “Degas at the Opéra,” and further prepared in advance by reading the exhibit overview online and teeing up the mobile audio guide on my phone. After donning my mask and walking through the grand doors, I proceeded through a standard security screening, and then I was in.

Signage throughout the museum reminded patrons to wear masks and respect social distancing, and guards in each room presumably would have spoken up if a space became too crowded. On that morning, however, everyone respected the rules, and it seemed that we all appreciated our privilege to be among the first to walk the museum’s hallowed halls since its reopening.

While I remained much more alert to my surroundings than I may have been in the past — bristling when a child ran by or if another patron inched a bit too close to me for comfort when trying to read a museum label — the overall experience felt at once both shockingly normal and somehow significant.

I navigated the limited ground-floor galleries open to the public and quickly found the entrance to the exhibit. Rather than barging right in, as I may have in the past, I found myself lingering in the hallway, checking my phone, looking over my shoulder and glancing at the security officers. After months of waiting in line to enter a grocery store or pharmacy, it seemed surreal that I didn’t need permission to stroll into a room filled with Degas masterpieces. When it seemed clear that nobody was going to stop me, I stepped into the first room.

Reconnecting with Art IRL

There is something powerful and personal in knowing that you’re standing directly in front of a canvas or sculpture that someone poured their creative energy into decades or centuries ago — a cosmic sense of connection in knowing that countless people before you have stood in your place admiring the same work, and that countless people after you will do the same. 

Over the past seven months, I have enthusiastically embraced online and digital offerings from arts organizations — browsing online exhibits, joining Zoom lectures and scheduling weekly “nights at the theater” with friends to stream the latest production. Now, standing a mere two feet away from an original Degas, I was struck by how different the experience was when not backlit by a computer screen.

I spent the next 45 minutes soaking in every detail — admiring the subtle textural difference of each brushstroke, noticing the magnificent, gilded frames surrounding each canvas, and appreciating the collective experience of viewing art with others, even from a distance.

Experiences like this serve as a reminder of why, in one form or another, the arts, arts institutions and the audiences who love them have survived everything from plagues and wars to the rise and fall of empires. For cultural institutions, the road ahead will not be easy, and fully reopening will take time, investment and innovation. It will also take continued support and encouragement from visitors like me who are cheering on our national and community arts organizations as they rebuild for the post-COVID world.

 

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