Bay Area Museums Exhibit Caution in Gradual and Pending Reopenings

3 min
de Young visitors Klint Jaramillo and Elida Magdalena Bautista. (Chloe Veltman/KQED)

After more than six months of closure, museums in parts of the Bay Area are starting to bring visitors back.

Visiting San Francisco’s de Young Museum on the first of three member preview days ahead of Friday’s general reopening, it felt like art lovers, who’d been holding their breath for half a year, were now finally able to exhale.

“I’m thrilled and overjoyed,” said San Francisco resident Elida Margarita Bautista, who was visiting the Frida Kahlo exhibition with her friend, Klint Jaramillo.

The pair had patiently waited for the highly-anticipated, globe-trotting show about the famed Mexican artist to open for months. It was just about to launch in March when the pandemic shut down the city’s museums.

“The one lament I had over all the other laments of the pandemic, was I didn’t get to go to the de Young, to see the Frida exhibit,” Bautista said. “So I’m super excited to be able to be here and finally get to see this amazing collection.”

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State guidelines dictate that museums in counties with low enough COVID rates can reopen, but only at 25% capacity at first. Currently, eligible counties in the so-called “red tier” include San Francisco, Marin, Napa, Solano, Alameda, Santa Clara and San Mateo. Many counties are requiring museums, like the de Young, to submit a health and safety plan before green-lighting their reopening.

At the de Young, in keeping with state and county guidelines, visitors have to book tickets in advance, observe physical distancing rules and wear face coverings. There’s also timed entry and signage to control the flow of bodies through the space. And some areas and facilities, like the water fountains and the popular Observation Tower, are currently off-limits.

Some facilities like water fountains are currently off-limits to museum visitors. (Chloe Veltman/KQED)

“I feel safe and not crowded,” said Bautista, smiling behind her red embroidered mask. “I so appreciate all the measures they’ve taken to allow for me to finally be able to experience this.”

The museum’s chief administrative officer Susan McConkey said reopening plans have been in the offing since the spring.

“We were able to open because we had all of the signage, the training for the staff, and all of those things in place,” she said.

Behind the scenes, though, the de Young’s director of preparation and installation, Ryan Butterfield, said it’s been a frenzy. His team has been tasked with tasks as wide-ranging as removing the coverings protecting the Frida Kahlo artworks these many months, and doing away with potentially germ-spreading touchscreens in the AI-themed Uncanny Valley show.

“It’s been hair-raising,” said Butterfield. “We’ve been running around like a chicken with its head cut off, getting ready.”

The rush to reopen comes as no surprise given how much revenue these nonprofits have lost since March. According to research conducted by the California Association of Museums, the state’s shuttered institutions have hemorrhaged $4 billion collectively over the past six months.

The Asian Art Museum is preparing to welcome visitors back on Oct. 3. (Courtesy Asian Art Museum)

Although some museums in red-tier counties are opting to reopen at 25% capacity, there’s only so long they can continue to operate at the reduced income level.

“Our fiscal-year budget is based on an estimate of below-attendance. So for the next year, I think we’re confident,” said Asian Art Museum director Jay Xu. “But if we continue on like this in the following year, then we have to be very vigilant and open up other sources of revenue in order to keep the museum healthy and robust.”

For San Francisco institutions, the path to reopening was further complicated when Mayor London Breed announced they could reopen back in late June, only to change her mind just a few days later.

“The fact that we’ve seen over 100 cases overnight completely changes our plans for a reopening,” said Breed in a press conference announcing her about-face on June 26. “So we’ve got to put a pause on it.”

At that point the de Young faced a reckoning. McConkey said the museum was forced to lay off 14 employees. It furloughed 33 more. (Since then, McConkey said, the furloughed employees have returned to work.)

“It was such a deflating moment,” McConkey said. “And that’s when we knew we were going to have to make some really tough decisions.”

Given this summer’s bait-and-switch, some local museums are feeling less inclined to announce a reopening date just yet.

Museum of the African Diaspora
The Museum of the African Diaspora has been closed to the public since mid-March, when the city mandated the closure of all museums. (Courtesy of the Museum of the African Diaspora)

“There is a little bit of fear of that happening again,” said Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD) senior director of innovation and engagement Mark Sabb. Sabb said MoAD is focusing for now on virtual programming, and waiting to see how things go at the de Young, as well as other institutions that recently announced reopening dates like the Asian Art Museum, the Contemporary Jewish Museum and SFMOMA, before moving ahead.

“We’re really just approaching all of this stuff with caution, taking our time to figure out our plan,” he said.

Elsewhere around the Bay Area, museums have faced other considerations around the reopening process. The San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), which relies on donations and foundation support for most of its revenue and doesn’t charge admission, simply has other priorities right now.

“We were very focused on virtual programing and on this big, public art ‘Get Out The Vote’ project that we’re doing,” said ICA executive director and chief curator Ali Gass. “So we’re quickly replacing our air filters to go to a higher-rated filtration system and quickly putting in a custom plexi shield around our visitor services desk. We are also figuring out how we can staff a reopening.”

One of many physical distancing signs at the de Young. (Chloe Veltman/KQED)

And at the Oakland Museum of California, director Lori Fogarty said she’s focused on getting the delicate balance between her museum’s commitment to being a public hub with public safety.

“I feel as a museum director, an obligation to be a place of people being able to come back and a place of healing and community connection,” Fogarty said. “And at the same time, I feel such an obligation to ensure the safety of our staff and our visitors. We’re toggling between those those equally important objectives.”

The museum hopes to reopen its doors to the public sometime in November.

Back at the de Young, McConkey said now it’s reopened, she hopes the museum won’t have to shut down again anytime soon.

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“But if we do, we’re prepared for it,” she said. “We’re pivoting so much, we’re dizzy.”