For more than 20 minutes, Akron Art Museum director Mark Masuoka stared into the cerulean recesses of Sky Hook (1981), a somber painting by Gene Davis. Masuoka searched for solace in the margins of its colors, gazing intently at the blurry stripes of blue paint evoking a rainstorm’s torrential downpour. When it was time for him to leave, Masuoka backed slowly away from his favorite artwork and exited the gallery. The museum doors then closed behind him, and Masuoka was forced to realize that they would stay that way until June.
The last few weeks have presented an immeasurable challenge for Masuoka as he steers one of Ohio’s largest cultural institutions through the coronavirus pandemic after its closure on March 12. “Nobody has a crystal ball, but our goal from the beginning has been to work proactively through this crisis and protect our staff,” he said. “Everyone is facing some level of fear and uncertainty right now.”
The Covid-19 outbreak has tested the financial strength of museums across the country. The American Alliance of Museums, an organization that offers recommendations for the leadership of institutions across the country, estimates that the closures are costing its members, on average, at least $33 million a day. Many major museums across America have been candid about the adverse financial impact. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, for example, said it expects to lose $100 million—a large sum, but a manageable one for an encyclopedic institution of its size. By contrast, the Akron Art Museum is projecting a total $933,000 in losses, almost a quarter of its $4.2 million annual budget, and a lengthy closure will undoubtedly have a long-lasting impact on finances and staff. Earlier this week, part-time staff were laid off and full-time employees were either furloughed, given reduced hours, or retained with pay cuts.
The resulting economic free fall has forced leaders of regional museums like Masuoka to make tough decisions about payroll and programming to help steer the museum clear of bankruptcy. But even after canceling exhibitions and suspending part-time workers, the Akron Art Museum still needs to find new sources of income to survive.
“We need to find new revenue streams,” Seema Rao, the museum’s deputy director, told staff during a teleconference meeting two weeks ago. She is leading the organization’s efforts to stay afloat. “We need to prioritize high-impact, low-effort projects right now.”
The logistics of closing a museum are more complicated than it might seem. Even during a lockdown, bills continue to come due, books essential for curatorial research must be collected, and scrapped exhibitions must be dismantled by art handlers standing six feet apart.
On her last day in the office, Reggie Lynch, the museum’s curator of community engagement, took a detour through the galleries to commune with a Helen Frankenthaler painting called Wisdom (1969). She thought of the Abstract Expressionist’s artistic process, the slow methodical bleeding of pigment into the canvas. “I found myself tracing the lines of where she was spreading the paint and took a minute to pause and find connection with another human,” Lynch said. “That’s what art does.”
Now, working from her spare bedroom, Lynch is making the best of her situation. Her fiancé, a radio journalist, has commandeered the dining room as a mobile recording studio, padding the walls with pillows and blankets. When she sees her colleagues, it’s via video conferencing. The thousands of children and low-income families that she serves through programming, however, have disappeared behind the veil of quarantine because they lack access to online resources.
When regional museums close, the surrounding communities lose much more than cultural enrichment. The Akron Art Museum serves around 8,000 students through school tours, the majority of which take place in May. Because of the coronavirus, those trips are canceled. Studio classes, popular with children and elders, are also suspended. And students from local universities—some of whom work as security guards, gift shop cashiers, and docents—now find themselves without the part-time jobs that help pay for school.
“This is a part of the country where nonprofits are very important,” Myriam Altieri Haslinger, a museum trustee and former board president, told ARTnews. The philanthropist’s family foundation has long supported Akron’s education initiatives. “It’s going to be difficult and require creative input to see how we can reach out to those communities who use the museum as a third place for their families.”
Two years ago, Katelyn Evans joined the museum as a college intern. She worked her way up through the ranks and was promoted to education coordinator in January. Only two months into her new job, the coronavirus has upended her responsibilities. She started her afternoon on March 12 by giving a tour of the museum to preschoolers; she ended it by learning that the museum would be shuttering. “I was anticipating the information, but it was still shocking,” she said. “It took the breath out of me.”
Four days later, Evans returned to an empty museum to retrieve her things. The gallery lights were off; from the corner of her eye, she could see the dim glow of words running across Jenny Holzer’s installation All Fall (2012), which features projected phrases like “fear is the greatest incapacitator” and “a sincere effort is all you can ask.” She spoke to a nearby security guard about the unusual experience of living through a pandemic as she unclipped student artworks from a lobby display. The coronavirus came so quickly that the children never had a chance to see their creations hung in the same museum that houses work by Andy Warhol, Donald Judd, and Mickalene Thomas. And now, it’s uncertain when Evans will return to the classroom; she’s been moved from full-time to part-time employment during the shutdown. (To weather the closure’s financial blow, many employees—including Masuoka—were also forced to take pay cuts.)
“My four-year-old son says that only boring people are bored,” says Gina Thomas McGee, curator of education. “As the parent of two young children, it’s challenging to get work done right now.” But the coronavirus quarantine has also presented opportunities for her to experiment with future programming on her children. She spends her nights preparing lesson plans for creative play that keep her children entertained through the morning while she attends conference calls. “It’s been really helpful to have an arsenal of tricks and lots of random supplies at home,” she added.
The Akron Art Museum lives and dies by the support of local donors whose contributions provide the vast majority of its budget. When the executive office agreed to close the museum, staff spent countless hours on the phone with trustees to confirm that support would last through the outbreak; Rao spoke with colleagues at small and large museums to create pandemic-era policies; and management agreed to stay honest with employees.
The museum is now working frantically to find new ways to monetize its online content. Staff are working around the clock, but the chances of finding a silver bullet are slim. Much of the organization’s grant funding is based on attendance figures, hurting the chances of any online initiative to make a dent in the museum’s rising budget deficit. And when the museum does reopen, how long will it be until visitors return?
“In these last two weeks, a few things have become clear,” Rao told ARTnews. “Museum professionals alone cannot secure the future of our work. We’re trying so hard. But our efforts are like trying to stem a tide. We need help to keep from drowning.”