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Reimagining an art center in a COVID world

“As a museum, we’ll eventually return to normal”

Robert A. Booth CANOE (Float), 2014 This work appears in the museum’s WHAT'S GOING ON exhibition, which will greet returning vistors.

Photos courtesy of burhcfield penney art center


As you read this, many local museums and galleries have already reopened as part of Governor Cuomo’s first iteration of Phase 4, the final stage of reversing his COVID-19 pause. For months, arts institutions have been reimagining what the art viewing experience would look like as the pandemic eases. We spoke to Burchfield Penney Art Center’s (BPAC) executive director Dennis Kois in June, just as the organization was developing its plan for welcoming visitors back, with a focus on keeping the public and staff safe.


Because BPAC is part of the Buffalo State SUNY campus, its relaunch is tied to the college’s reopening schedule. Movie theaters, concert venues, live theaters, and other arts venues, which accommodate concentrations of people, are all part of Phase 4’s first iteration and are subject to limitations for reopening. But aside from receptions and special events—which will come back sometime later—museum attendance usually involves small social circles. “People tend to visit with family and friends, and the cultural norms mean you aren’t going to be in proximity of other families or social groups,” says Kois. “People respect each other’s personal space in a gallery setting.”


The BPAC plan includes installations of art that support social distancing. M&T Bank is sponsoring “free for all” admission to help rebuild audiences while reducing the need for staff/visitor interactions. The museum developed a staggered work schedule to prevent the entire staff from going into quarantine if one member becomes ill.


Virginia Cuthbert, Several Summers Ago, 1966 . This work appears in the museum’s WHAT'S GOING ON exhibition, which will greet returning vistors.


But planning goes much deeper. Kois lists a string of topics that had to be considered in advance of reopening: “How many people can come to a wedding rental? What if one visitor complains about another visitor getting too close? How do we make sure we don’t end up with hand sanitizer on an artwork? What and how do we ‘police’ when it comes to social distancing, including the use of masks? How do we de-escalate? What are our staff’s worries about returning?”


Fortunately, none of the large nonprofit organizations have had to answer these questions alone. “All the directors have been on a call once a week throughout this crisis,” says Kois, “and there’s been lots of really helpful sharing.”


Long-term outlook

A May 13 article in the Schenectady-based Daily Gazette says, “Museums will never again exist in the way they did [at] the beginning of 2020.” Kois is more optimistic. “I think as a museum, we’ll eventually return to normal, though we’ve been forced—truly a trial-by-fire—to radically advance our online delivery of programs, and that isn’t ever going to go away,” Kois states, adding,  “but seeing art in person—the real thing, not facsimiles or pictures online—is an experience worth having. Otherwise, why would anyone even go to a museum? If I never have to be on a Zoom call again in my life, I’ll be thrilled.”


Lean times

Life without crowded fundraisers—a big part of nonprofit funding—presents another challenge. Art centers operate on thin margins and depend on the support of those who believe in their missions.


BPAC hasn’t laid off any full-time staff, but it’s implementing other cost-saving measures, like curating exhibitions from the museum’s collection. That provides another opportunity. “Our curatorial team has rethought our schedule, which will feature a number of shows that are responsive to what we’re all going through—exhibits that connect to the experience of isolation and quarantine, and others that address the injustice and violence we have witnessed.


“We all need artists to help us understand difficult times, understand ourselves and each other. We need art now more than ever,” Koi says. His hope is that the public will sustain arts organizations. “If you think the voices and actions of nonprofits of all types are especially important just now, this is the time for you rally to their support with your dollars, your voice, and your actions.”



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