Five months ago, on Friday, March 13, I visited the National Gallery of Art the day before it shuttered its doors to the pandemic. The day was taut with dread. Reports were coming from overseas that entire cities were paralyzed, economies were flatlining, people were dying and there was nothing to do to stop it. And now it was at our doorstep.
The grocery store earlier that day had looked ransacked. It was crammed with shoppers whose eyes and postures strained to abide the thinning veneer of social order while they darted their shopping carts towards the last bags of carrots, frozen shrimp, brown rice and Tostitos. Checkout lines stretched into the aisles. The roads outside were empty.
Threats of food shortages, store closures, deserted streets were shadows of impending carnage piercing the quiet of the day. I thought at the time that this is how Paris must have felt on the eve of German occupation.
What does one do with one’s last hours of independence? There were worse ways to spend them, I reasoned, than looking at art. So I went to the National Gallery of Art and saw “Degas at the Opéra,” a balm of an exhibition, and I took a lap through the French galleries in the east wing on my way out as a kind of last-minute spiritual investment.
Since that day, I haven’t been back to a museum, but I’ve had plenty of time to debate the nature of museums, both with myself and with my infinitely patient and equally passionate wife. It is hard to know how much news gets traded outside our art-world bubble on the subject of museums, but, given the very real horrors gripping the world right now, I am assuming and hoping that it isn’t much. So let me fill you in: The scene is a little bleak, but probably not as bad as you’d imagine.
Museums are well built for the long haul. Most of them are subsidized, many are nonprofits and fewer, but still plenty, have reliable endowments with enough to keep them idling for years. Museums are also less dependent on sales revenue than other arts organizations like theaters and dance companies. Even art museums that charge admission rely more on fundraising than on ticket income and shop sales for salaries, exhibitions and maintenance.
Anyone would be forgiven for thinking otherwise. For one, the art world tends to be dramatic when it is worried about money. And NPR recently broadcast a story with the alarming headline: “One-Third Of U.S. Museums May Not Survive The Year, Survey Finds.”
This might be true. However — and with sympathy for anyone losing employment in the brutal and corrupted job market of the arts — this statistic would also require most of us to expand our definition of a museum.
I can say with virtual certainty that any institution that comes to mind as a paradigm of museology is not at risk of closing. Museums facing closure right now are mostly institutions that shouldn’t be considered museums any more than ice cream trucks should be considered restaurants.
We are talking here about obscure historic houses, small-town historical societies and strip-mall outposts with, for example, the world’s largest collection of bottle caps (which, for the record, isn’t closing). Evidently, the most noteworthy permanent museum closure that NPR could find was World of Speed, a motorsports museum in Wilsonville, Oregon.
As of this moment, there is not a museum in Washington that seems at risk of permanent closure.
But this sheds light on a funny little issue. Museum jargon has been steadily diluted for at least the last decade, due largely to the scattered, unregimented and ambiguous nature of what museums do and who does it (i.e., their services and hierarchies).
Running a real museum is not easy, but its parameters aren’t technically formalized, which opens the door to massive misappropriation by wannabe influencers, entrepreneurs and cultural elites. The New York Times published a piece last month called “Everyone’s a Curator Now,” which is funny and razor sharp.
Behind the façade, museums are scrappy, weird places, filled with offbeat and unconventionally qualified people in high-level positions and made up of small, insular teams of jaded but ferociously devoted employees, contrasting absurdly with the exalted grandness of a museum’s reputation. They research and preserve humanity’s eternal and very literal devotion to beauty through historical analysis and exhibition. There is no manual for this, and certainly not in times like these.
In August of 1939 — almost 81 years ago to the day — the de facto director of the Louvre evacuated the museum’s art collection into hiding in anticipation of Germany’s arrival and against the orders of the French government. Prisoners at Auschwitz made and circulated drawings in secret, knowing that they would one day be important historical artifacts, perhaps even preserved in a museum (which they now are — Google “Franciszek Jaźwiecki”).
Not to ascribe such dire virtue to the work museums are doing right now, but this is in fact their lineage. Art curators and conservators are doing analogous work today, maintaining storage facilities at the risk of their health and safety while circulating imagery en masse via virtual exhibitions, free online talks and lectures, daily artwork postings on social media, blog posts and more. It is work that they have performed ceaselessly — in some cases with manic and self-flagellating devotion — since the beginning of the pandemic.
Art is an ineffable asset in moments of crisis, something that needs to be actively protected and expressed. Let’s not forget this over the coming months, as museums begin experimenting with reopening. Art should be for everyone, and museums work hard to uphold that insanely democratic and unintuitive ideal.
Some museums in town — such as the National Museum of Women in the Arts and the National Gallery, which is using free timed passes, available online — have reopened already. Smithsonian museums plan to follow suit this fall, in a series of staged limited openings.
One last thing: I lied to you. I went to the National Gallery just last week. Nearly five months after my last visit, I returned, face-masked and ecstatic, with my free ticket on my phone. I saw Degas again. I saw Rodin and Daumier, a few dog portraits by Manet and Renoir and Antoine Vollon’s maybe-masterpiece “Mound of Butter” — which might not be a real masterpiece, but I’ll be damned if anyone who’s ever seen it doesn’t love it. It was weird. But museums are weird. Anyway, that is a story for next time.