After getting the go-ahead from Governor Jay Inslee to reopen their doors in mid-August, museums were one of the many industries shut down under Inslee's new COVID-19 restrictions, announced on Sunday. The shutdown will remain in place until at least December 14 to help curb the exponential growth of coronavirus cases across the state.
While museums are certainly not COVID hotspots, the state has decided keeping them open is too risky. Museum directors have cooperated with these government-mandated closures, but they've come at a cost.
In a nationwide survey of 760 museum directors conducted back in July, 33% said there was a "significant risk" that their institutions would close permanently by next fall or that they were unsure if their museums would survive this crisis. In Washington, this second closure cycle pushes museums even closer to the brink.
In an email, The Museum of Pop Culture said they anticipate up to a "75 percent drop" in revenue this year. After closing for much of the year, this additional closure certainly won't help. Over in Ballard, the National Nordic Museum reports they've only generated approximately 40% of what they budgeted for earned revenue in September and October, the last two months they've been open. Both museums plan to turn back to digital offerings for the next six weeks.
The Bellevue Arts Museum (BAM)—fresh off the opening of Tariqa Waters's exhibition Yellow No. 5—echoed a similar sentiment, mentioning that the "end of the year is a critical time for fundraising in the arts and in nonprofits in general." This additional closure, while totally necessary, will eat into their already slight fundraising opportunities. Like MoPOP and the National Nordic Museum, BAM will pivot back to virtual programming, virtual tours, and video content as a way to connect with locked-down audiences at home.
Amada Cruz, director and CEO of the Seattle Art Museum (SAM), said in a statement that while it's been "a joy to see visitors safely enjoying an intimate experience of the art," the community "must come together and do what is necessary to keep each other safe." The region's biggest art museum invites would-be visitors to go virtual and "Stay Home with SAM." All of SAM's locations—including the downtown museum, Seattle Asian Art Museum, and the PACCAR Pavilion at the Olympic Sculpture Park—remain closed for the time being.
Like the rest of the museums in the region, the Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI), Frye Art Museum, Henry Art Museum, and Museum of Flight are all continuing to build their virtual presence during this time. “As a history museum, we know that how we respond to challenging events is the real measure of the strength of any age,” MOHAI’s Executive Director Leonard Garfield quite optimistically wrote to me via email. “In that regard, Seattle’s cultural community has truly made history this year.”
Perhaps the only museum that views this shutdown as a reprieve is the Museum of Museums (MoM) on First Hill. The buzzed-about contemporary arts space never reopened because it never officially opened. After owner and director Greg Lundgren announced the project back in June of last year, the official opening date kept getting pushed back—fall of 2019, then June, then this month. As of this writing, MoM does not have a definite grand opening date.
The delays are due mostly to Lundgren's struggles with the city's permitting process. There was a lot of back-and-forth between MoM and the city over the space's third floor, which Lundgren planned to use as a gallery. But while the bottom floors are zoned for commercial use, the third floor has only been zoned for medical use—a holdover from his landlord, Swedish Health Services, who used the building as both a medical office and a retail space.
Still, Lundgren was passionate about using the third floor as an arts space. He hired architects, a land use attorney, and permit specialists to argue for the top floor's rezoning. No dice. Lundgren settled on applying for a series of temporary-use permits to legally use the space as a gallery, a financial hit that will cost him $13,000-$25,000 and gives him a time limit of only five years.
While the third-floor matter is mostly settled—Neon Saltwater and Brian Sanchez's immersive installation Energy Drink currently lives up there—Lundgren has yet to obtain a certificate of occupancy, which would allow him to open his doors to the general public. Lundgren recently told me the issue comes down to "purely a signature" from the city. He said he's waiting for them to sign off on a fire permit and a few more inspections before they can legally open.
Starting at the end of October, MoM held members-only previews, hoping to get some people in to see the completed space. While it was a legal risk to have visitors in the building without proper permitting, Lundgren felt justified letting dues-paying members explore the space. By his logic, members are just as involved with the museum as the artists exhibiting work.
The COVID-related museum shutdown relieves the pressure on MoM to open to the public, giving them time to finish necessary inspections. In the meantime, Lundgren said MoM will do some remote programming and socially-distant offsite experiments like the rest of his peers.
"One day at a time," he said. "I guess that's how this year is."