Museums In NC Can Open. So, What Happens Now?
For six months, the arts world in Charlotte and beyond has placed everything on hold and waited. Waited for coronavirus infection numbers to decline, paused until the world felt somewhat safe, again.
In North Carolina, the situation has slowly improved and Gov. Roy Cooper announced that the state would move to Phase 2.5 of reopening. The loosening of restrictions included allowing museums to reopen at 50% capacity.
So, what now?
Now that museums in Charlotte and the rest of the state can reopen, will they? And when they do reopen, what will a museum experience in coronavirus times look like?
For starters, in Charlotte, it means much more collaboration among the biggest uptown museums. And for everyone, it almost certainly means digital programming that provided a useful pivot during the shutdown is here to stay, in some form.
“There's no three-ring binder for this,” said Hillary Hardwick, the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art’s vice president of marketing and communications. “There wasn't a plan. There wasn't a roadmap or a clear sense of when everything was going to return to normal. So, you just kind of pivot and you take it week by week.”
When the museum world shut down mid-March, there was scrambling because no one had endured a sustained shutdown due to pandemic before, of course. And museums already run on tight margins, moreso in Mecklenburg County after a proposed Arts and Science Council sales tax increase that would have provided more funding failed on the ballot last year.
“We were already facing some headwinds looking at budgets coming into this year,” Mint Museum CEO Todd Herman said. “And then when the pandemic hit, obviously people weren't coming in. So we were losing our admissions, but also our rental income.”
Rental of space at the Mint’s uptown and Randolph Road locations for weddings and other events can bring in about $1 million annually, Herman said.
“So we had to withstand that hit as well,” Herman said. “And what that caused us to do was to look very, very closely at our budgets. We cut where we could.”
So did the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts+Culture, which President and CEO David Taylor said was aided by a PPP loan that gave them some breathing room.
That time allowed them to step back and plan a popular and informative YouTube series called “Unmasked,” that at first looked at how COVID-19 was disproportionately affecting Black people, then pivoted to conversations about systemic racism in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. Now, the Gantt will address voting rights with “Unmasked” as the 2020 election nears.
At the Mint, nearly 100 pieces of content – from Q&As with artists to video tours to home projects for the family – were published online.
“We did a lot of stuff for kids and families because we understood that was a need,” Herman said.
The Bechtler pivoted to virtual versions of its popular “Jazz at the Bechtler” event.
“We're having more people tune in for that than what our actual physical capacity would allow,” Hardwick said.
And at the Charlotte Museum of History, an entire curriculum dubbed “Unexpected Homeschoolers” was built online. The annual MeckDec celebration – the honoring of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence that is said to be the first declaration of independence against British rule – typically draws 500 in-person attendees, but garnered 10,000 visitors virtually this year.
And the museum’s most prominent fundraiser of the year, the Mad About Modern home tour, is going virtual, too.
“So that shows me that I think from now on, we're always going to have this hybrid of just about anything we do,” said Charlotte Museum of History President and CEO Adria Focht.
Moving to the in-person world, though, has proven a bit tricker. Not one of the Charlotte-area museums opened the first weekend they were permitted to do so, Sept. 5. Or the second weekend.
The Levine Museum of the New South opened Saturday, the Mint and the Bechtler will both officially open Sept. 25., and the Gantt Center opens Oct. 1.
Visitors at all museums will be required to wear face masks and encouraged to stay at least six feet apart. Signs reminding of coronavirus safety measures will look and sound similar because the museums have been talking weekly about a reopening strategy since the shutdown began. The discussions evolved from ASC-organized video conferences with all area arts organizations.
“We formed sort of a subset because we understood that our reopening strategy was going to be different from, say, the performing arts, right?” Herman said. “Because they have to contend with how many people can they fit into an auditorium or an audience. And we don't have that same kind of restriction.”
And now they all stand on a similar precipice: No one knows exactly what to expect as far as attendance.
Will people still be too fearful of the coronavirus to venture into museums? Or will everyone be so eager to experience something new that lines will be long?
And even if people do come back, it won’t affect the bottom line immediately.
“I think we have very strong headwinds ahead of us,” the Gantt Center’s Taylor said. “As we open, expenses tend to move closer back to 100%. Revenue doesn't really adjust that quickly. So when does that stream turn back on? You know, it's going be awhile.”
Everything has changed with the coronavirus, and that includes art exhibits and museum missions. For the next year, the Mint will focus on highlighting its own collection of 35,000 objects, along with the work of local artists.
“We started thinking about what would be meaningful to the community in terms of what we have on view when we reopen,” Herman said. “And so what people will see is a focus on community and a focus on this community.”
And the Gantt Center will continue to highlight conversations and art that inspires a closer look at injustice and racial equality.
“The reality is that lots of people are dying and have died. And some of the projections say to us a lot more are going to die,” Taylor said. “And I think we have to be realistic about that as it relates to the virus. And I think it relates to the systemic racism in our society and our community. It's a very real thing.
“And, yes, we as institutions, we're going to put up some beautiful, creative works that might speak to social justice. But that's not going to solve problems. That's not going to solve issues. That work has to continue to be intense. So people have to be committed with it.”
The coronavirus has changed everything, and now museums are adapting.
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