Numbers down across the state, but virtual programs helping fulfill missions
Photography provided by Crystal Bridges Museum
Museums across the state have been significantly impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. While they closed temporarily to the public beginning in mid-March, many have since reopened at a reduced capacity with increased safety measures.
Mid-America Science Museum in Hot Springs was one of the first museums to reopen on May 18 following guidelines from Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s directive and recommendations by the Arkansas Department of Health on large indoor venues.
“We did so with all the necessary precautions to keep our guests and staff safe,” executive director Diane LaFollette told Arkansas Money & Politics, adding that the museum is currently operating at a reduced occupancy rate between 20 to 25 percent.
The temporary closure and drop in visitors has severely impacted a major source of funding through admission tickets. However, the museum has received financial support in the form of a CARES Act Payment Protection Program (PPP) loan, an Arkansas Ready for Business grant and private foundation grants to help with expenses.
“The board and leadership at the museum have developed a plan for sustainability to carry us through this time,” LaFollette said. “It involves several revenue scenarios to respond to the museum’s needs during this crisis to recover lost revenue so we are strong when the pandemic is resolved and to rebuild our resilience so we are equipped to serve our community well into the future.”
According to LaFollette, Mid-America Science Museum has adopted a saying, “You make the path as you walk it,” paraphrased from a poem by Antonio Machado.
“We will still make plans in accordance with the current scientific research and expert recommendations, but we are also ready to change those plans, sometimes very quickly when necessary and then examine the ripple effect that change has on the organization and our community.”
LaFollette also pointed out that the coronavirus pandemic has caused people to “rethink and improve the way museums support science education.”
The Museum of Discovery (MOD) in Little Rock is adjusting to the new normal as well.
“Our first day to be closed was Sunday, March 15,” said Kelley Bass, chief executive officer. “The timing couldn’t have been worse for us, as that is right when our busiest season of the year begins — massive numbers of students on field trips and the huge rush of public visits during spring break.”
Bass said the museum was closed for 14. It reopened June 23 to the general public. In the first eight weeks of being reopened, the museum saw 23 percent of the number of visitors from the same weeks in 2019.
“We are just trying to be as welcoming as possible to guests, figure out the best ways to connect with people virtually in terms of educational programs and keep a tight cap on expenses,” Bass told AMP. “Our board understands this will be a money-losing time for the museum. We’re all just trying to get through the ‘other side’ whenever that is and whatever that looks like.”
Both Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and The Momentary in Bentonville reopened on June 10. The two museums focused on making art more accessible and helping communities in Northwest Arkansas during its temporary closure.
Beth Bobbitt, media relations manager for Crystal Bridges, said the museum adapted its website so it would become a resource for activities and bring virtual experiences into people’s homes.
“We already had a community outreach department, but we really mobilized that group and staff and volunteers to support the community by reaching out to partner organizations to determine needs along the lines of food and security, housing, internet and artist support,” she said.
Crystal Bridges currently is operating at a one-third capacity, limiting the number of visitors to 30 per 15 minutes.
According to Bobbitt, there were 56,000 visitors in July 2019 compared to 19,000 visitors in July 2020. The overall number of visits has been lower, but she says that the museum is adapting to providing better virtual programs. The future may entail a hybrid approach with onsite and online programs to make sure art is accessible.
The Momentary, a new contemporary art museum, is a satellite to Crystal Bridges. It is located in a 63,000-square-foot, former cheese factory that has been transformed into an interactive space for visual and performing arts.
Emily Neuman, public relations manager for The Momentary, told AMP that the museum “will continue to see what it means in how we gather moving forward in public spaces especially with performing arts.”
Neuman said the space will continuously bring in new exhibitions and programs for visitors to enjoy. The only permanent piece of artwork is the outdoor large neon-lit statement, “You Belong Here.” New works are showcased temporarily.
Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, there has been an effort to increase outdoor and virtual offerings at The Momentary.
“We serve as a gathering space for the community, so we want to make sure those who are comfortable visiting feel safe and those who are unable to visit feel like they have a similar experience at their home,” Neuman said.
One museum that has not reopened is the Arkansas Arts Center in Little Rock. While the construction of the reimagined Arkansas Arts Center is ongoing and still on schedule to be completed in 2022, the temporary Riverdale location has remained closed since May 13.
Victoria Rameriz, executive director, told AMP that there is not a plan to open the Riverdale location anytime soon, but the center has been working hard to create online opportunities and be accessible.
“We made the decision fairly early in March to cancel the spring quarter of in-person programming out of the safety for participants, patrons, members and staff,” she said. “I have been delighted to see the creativity and ingenuity of the staff because they have been able to create online opportunities for all ages.”
The Arkansas Arts Center Amplified Facebook group was created by staff members as a place for those interested to see all the virtual exhibitions and programs. The 62nd Annual Delta Exhibition and Young Arkansas Artists Exhibition both were moved online earlier this year.
Even though classes are online as well, the Arkansas Arts Center has been offering bags with all the necessary materials for individuals to pick up outside at the Riverdale location.
“The coronavirus has broadened what we do and how we do it,” Ramirez said. “I think the Arkansas Arts Center will continue its commitment to reaching the entire state and looking at online programming and technology that could be part of statewide outreach. There is an opportunity to reach people that we have not been able to before.”