Museums remain closed in California while retail shops are open. What that means for institutions large and small

Written by Amy Ta, produced by Angie Perrin and Sarah Sweeney

Indoor museums are still closed — while malls, tattoo parlors, hair and nail salons have been open since Gov. Gavin Newsom lifted parts of the state’s stay-at-home order last month. There’s now an odd scenario: The gift shop is open at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), but the museum itself is not. 

KCRW talks about the pandemic’s impact on museums with Keasha Dumas Heath, Executive Director of the Museum of African American Art (MAAA) in Baldwin Hills; Justinian Jampol, Executive Director and Founder of the Wende Museum in Culver City; and Robin Pogrebin, culture reporter for New York Times. 

Arguments for keeping museums closed v. open  

Pogrebin says California is concerned about museums drawing people from out of state and being places where the virus could spread. 

However those rationales don’t hold water, she says. “I think 70 to 80% of their visitorship is local, within the county. And also ... visitors typically spend less than 20 minutes in exhibitions.”

Meanwhile, many museums argue that their extensive square footage allows for social distancing and good indoor circulation guards against virus transmission.

Particularly at LACMA, Pogrebin points out that patrons must make reservations, wear masks, undergo temperature checks, and complete two questionnaires. There are also guards on-site. 

What happens when a museum is inside a mall 

The Museum of African American Art is located on the third floor of Macy’s inside Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza. 

“We all shut down initially in March 2020. Macy's did reopen in June 2020. And the museum of course, according to the mandates at the state and county levels, the museum has been required to to stay closed, despite being in the Macy's, and we are also connected to the mall itself, which is also now reopened. But it's quite ironic,” says executive director Keasha Dumas Heath. 

She says Macy’s store manager directly contacted her, saying some people in the store were looking for the museum, wondering why it wasn’t open, and wanting to know when it would reopen. 

The important role of cultural institutions in communities

The Wende Museum is located at Culver City’s Veterans Memorial Park. Founder and Executive Director Justinian Jampol says it’s frustrating because museums are set up to engage with visitors. 

“We're not in the business of trying to sell things. We are about managing the flow of people, ensuring safety. And museums are exactly the kinds of organizations set up [to ensure flow and safety] much more than a mall would be. So I think it should be the other way around. The museum should be open and the mall should be closed.” 

Exterior view of the entrance to the Wende Museum. Photography by Paravant Architects.

This underscores something larger, he emphasizes: “Arts and culture is often seen as a luxury or under the umbrella of entertainment. And it couldn't be farther from the truth. ... The last year has shown me what a robust organization nonprofits and museums are. ... Our lot has been turned into a place for testing, for distributing PPE. … We need to start thinking more about arts and cultural institutions, and the important role that we have in the community.”

Less lobbying power, resources, and support 

Museums don’t have the same (lobbying) power as big retail stores, film studios and production houses that have been open. Nor do they have the same political and economic tools that for-profits have, Jampol notes. 

“A lot of for-profits can have lines of credit and other means to get through a period like this. Nonprofits don't. For-profit banks don't understand nonprofits like ours. … The irony is we are a group of people that I think need the help the most, and we get it the least.” 

Meanwhile, museums have opened in New York, Houston, and other places nationwide. Pogrebin says, “LA is unique in not having reopened. … Museums have been able to make the case to government that they matter, that people need this kind of respite and cultural sort of stimulation in a time when they're locked down. And actually, these museums could really in California be a real antidote to the pandemic right now.”

Jampol says museums in California are less organized than ones in other states. “That was underscored by an event we hosted last month with 24 different organizations, nonprofit museums around Southern California to talk about this, that we are ready and willing to open up in the most safe and reasonable and appropriate way. Why aren't we getting the kind of attention that I think we deserve?”

Installation view of “Transformations: Living Room —>  Flea Market —>  Museum —> Art” in the Taschen Family Gallery at the Wende Museum. Photography by Daniel Dilanian.

Can museums financially survive long-term?

Jampol points out what’s particularly harmed arts and culture institutions in Southern California: Foundations that usually support them have redirected funding. 

“In a time when we need the support the most, there's the least amount of funding out there. Now the Getty and some others have stepped up in a big way, which is great and that's hopeful,” he says. “But what we're worried about is not only the here and now, but the ripple effect in a year or two. Because fundraising is all about your pipeline, and the pipeline has been absolutely stopped for this entire year. So even as we come out of this, and people can come back in the museum again, the problems don't stop there.”

Meanwhile, Heath says her museum in Baldwin Hills received a CARES recovery grant through California Humanities, plus other corporate grants. 

She adds, “We found that our members and our supporters have really, really been sticking with us through this time. We've had folks continue with their memberships. We've had folks continue with making individual donations. So we are really feeling encouraged by that, and have some hope for the future that we will be able to make it through this time. But still, we would like to reopen as soon as possible.” 

Pogrebin says larger institutions like the Getty and LACMA have more of a cushion due to their donor base and funding opportunities, but they’re still suffering without revenue from visitors. 

“Fundraising is very much circumscribed by this. You can't have your usual galas and events and other public programs. That's why we've seen layoffs and furloughs across the country.”