How COVID-19 Has Thrown Museum Exhibition Planning into Disarray
Museum exhibitions take an exceptional amount of planning—from curatorial conception to filling out loan forms and insurance, to shipping, hanging, and displaying works. Getting a show on a museum’s calendar is no simple feat, let alone getting it on the gallery walls. So what happens when a global pandemic puts exhibitions and their scheduling on an indefinite pause?
It’s been nearly five months since the first museums in China started closing their doors due to COVID-19. Within that time, closures have spread worldwide, as the virus swept the globe. Even now, as institutions cautiously reopen in places like China, South Korea, Germany, France, Italy, the United Kingdom, and Texas, some are bracing for the possibility they’ll have to close again. Museums in South Korea have already reshuttered as a result of a second wave of infections.
Exterior view of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Courtesy of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.
As the world continues to exist in a state of suspension, curators, exhibition planners, and museum directors have had to remain nimble and prepared. “I have what I call scenarios,” said Robin Groesbeck, the director of exhibitions and interpretation at Arkansas’s Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, discussing the museum’s postponement of “Nick Cave: Until” (originally scheduled to go up this summer). “Believe it or not, I’m on scenario 16!”
Like many museums throughout the U.S., Crystal Bridges closed the week of March 15th and has remained in a state of uncertainty up until today, when it announced it would reopen to the public on June 10th. “What we’re trying to be is consistent and reliable,” said Groesbeck. The museum will be reopening with “Hank Willis Thomas: All Things Being Equal,” which has been extended to July 13th and is free.
There’s also the issue of timeliness. Many museums coordinate exhibitions specifically tied to moments in history, anniversaries, and broader cultural initiatives. New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, for example, was planning on opening its show “Making The Met: 1870-2020,” in celebration of the institution’s 150th anniversary, on March 30th. “We are allowing ourselves to let the 150th anniversary spill into the 151st year, which I think is the wise thing to do,” said Andrea Bayer, the Met’s deputy director for collections and administration. She added that “151 is the new 150! We’ll just consider this a mature way to celebrate a birthday when you can’t do it on the day itself.”
Exterior view of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
A majority of the programming and events tied to both the exhibition and the anniversary will also likely take place in 2021. The museum recently pushed back its expected reopening date from July to mid-August, at the very earliest. “We’re looking to expand most of the exhibitions that were on view to give people the opportunity to enjoy them,” said Bayer. “So much work and care went into them.”
Inward-focused exhibitions that draw heavily on an institution’s permanent collection are one thing, but exhibition planning gets really tricky when partner institutions and inter-museum lending is involved. “There’s a lot that’s changed,” said Gary Tinterow, the director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH), which was one of the first museums in the U.S. to reopen to the public, on May 23rd. “It’s still moving around because other cities don’t yet know when they’ll be able to reopen.” A major Phillip Guston exhibition co-organized with London’s Tate, the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston that was supposed to open at MFAH this fall now likely won’t be possible until next year.
Exterior view of Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Photo by Robb Williamson. Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
Moscow’s Garage Museum of Contemporary Art has been dealing with similar challenges. “It’s a very complicated thing for the exhibition coordinators,” said curator Valentin Dyakonov. “They had to write personally to every lending institution or person to ask for permission to extend the loans for these shows. It was a volume of emails unprecedented in the history of our museum.” Like the Metropolitan Museum, the Garage Museum chose to shutter a few days ahead of its official government lockdowns, which were instituted in mid-March.
Even as museums reopen, show calendars remain in flux. “Global logistical and travel restrictions have caused major problems,” said a representative from the UCCA, which operates spaces in Beijing and the nearby seaside town of Beidaihe. “We were required to postpone planned exhibitions despite both our museums having now reopened.”
Exterior view of Garage Museum of Contemporary Art. Courtesy of Garage Museum of Contemporary Art.
On the plus side, united by these collective concerns, art institutions around the world have been communicating, organizing, and figuring out ways to help assist one another. “All of our partners have been remarkably helpful, conducive, collaborative, and collegial,” said Tinterow. “It’s been a great experience.” Crystal Bridges’s Robin Groesbeck echoed that sentiment: “If there’s any kind of silver lining,” she said, “it’s about helping each other.”
Though museums around the world are having to contend with ongoing uncertainty, one thing is certain—that reopening day will be a spectacular one. “It’s going to be all the more meaningful when we go back in,” said Bayer. “This show allows us to really appreciate the Met’s history—the building, all its donors, members, visitors. And this moment has made it all the more precious.”
Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Valentine Dyakonov’s last name.