As cases of coronavirus mount in and around New York City, local museums are increasingly faced with the possibility of closure if the epidemic worsens, as has happened with a number of institutions in Milan, Italy, as well as the Louvre in Paris.
Health officials looking to stop the highly contagious new coronavirus (COVID-19) from spreading further are recommending that employers exercise an abundance of caution, routinely disinfecting their offices and sending sick workers home. But as the number of cases rises in urban centers like New York, museums, where large cultural institutions can see tens of thousands of visitors per day, are increasingly faced with the possibility that they might have to temporarily close their doors as the epidemic worsens.
“The health of our staff and visitors is of paramount importance to the Guggenheim,” a spokeswoman for the museum told ARTnews. “All nonessential museum travel has been suspended or postponed. We are also discussing plans to enable working at home where appropriate in the event of a closure.”
Last week in Venice, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection temporarily shuttered after the Italian government instructed the region’s art institutions to close because of the health emergency. The request came as Italy dealt with more than 3,000 cases of coronavirus and more than 100 deaths, most of which have occurred in the country’s northern provinces. (Worldwide, there are more than 95,000 cases and more than 3,300 deaths, mostly in China, as of Thursday, March 5.) But this week, museums in Venice reopened with regulations that visitors must avoid large gatherings and stay at least one meter from each other.
With a surge in cases across Europe, museums on the continent have struggled to adapt to the new reality of coronavirus. The Louvre closed for three days earlier this week after its staff refused to work, fearful of infection from the museum’s more than 30,000 daily visitors. Yesterday, workers struck a deal with their employers to reopen. The agreement included limiting direct contact between visitors and employees, in effect reducing crowd control in the gallery where the Mona Lisa hangs; a refusal to handle cash, only credit cards; and the distribution among workers of face masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer.
Museum administrators in New York are watching how museums like the Louvre are responding to employee concerns when creating contingency plans. Nearly a dozen museums surveyed by ARTnews say that they are monitoring the situation and planning to operate as usual, unless instructed otherwise by government officials, the World Health Organization, or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We are following developments closely,” said Dan Weiss, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s president and chief executive officer, in a statement. The museum leader added that administrators are “listening to the concerns and views of our colleagues so that we can make any accommodations that help, particularly for visitor-facing staff.”
Meanwhile, at the Morgan Library & Museum, officials are looking into what the long-term impacts of the coronavirus may be. “We are reviewing potential impacts across all areas of our operations and considering scenarios, such as disruptions to our exhibition schedule due to loan travel restrictions, temporary closures of public spaces, and event and program cancellations,” said Jessica Ludwig, deputy director at the Morgan. “To decrease the spread of germs, we are installing additional hand sanitizing stations, improving signage around hand-washing throughout our campus, and augmenting our cleaning practices.”
“The institution regularly reviews and updates its contingency plan,” a spokeswoman for the Frick Collection told ARTnews. “At this time, we are moving forward with all planned programs.”
New York confirmed its first case of the coronavirus only a few days ago, but the number of cases around the city have quickly risen to 24, as of Thursday morning. (The United States confirmed its 11th death from the outbreak yesterday, with 150 cases across the country.) This morning, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced two new patients, neither of which had a known connection to travel or the other previously diagnosed COVID-19 New Yorkers. City disease detectives are tracing close contacts of the new patients to ensure they are appropriately isolated.
The question of how the coronavirus will affect the tourist industry and art market looms large over the Armory Show, an international art fair with more than 180 galleries that runs this week. Thus far, dealers have reported business as usual. And art institutions across the city claim that attendance has not slowed significantly, though a visit to several of the city’s museums revealed galleries more empty than usual.
“Attendance is only slightly below what we modeled for the year during the past couple of weeks, although we are mindful that the rapidly changing environment may deter some travel plans,” Kenneth Weine, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, recently told the New York Times.
In New York, museums are taking their instructions from the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs (DCLA), which is working closely with the Mayor’s Office and the Department of Health to keep them updated on the coronavirus. Accordingly, DCLA has sent flyers about the infectious disease for distribution in public spaces and among staff. The agency is also serving as an interlocutor between cultural organizations that have questions and the appropriate city offices. In the event of a public health emergency, DCLA would help coordinate and determine the best course of action for museums to take.
“At this point, we’re encouraging the cultural community to continue their regular programming while taking precautions to keep their staff and visitors safe, informed, and healthy,” a city spokesperson told ARTnews.
While the Rubin Museum of Art has created a task force to deal with the coronavirus made up of staff from the executive team and from the operations and human resources departments, and is taking precautions similar to the other institutions ARTnews spoke with—stepping up cleaning and sanitation in the galleries and café, and restricting travel for staff—the museum’s statement pointed out that cultural spaces can, after all, be linked to wellness: “For many of our visitors, the Rubin is an oasis that provides a much-needed sense of well-being.”