BY ​Brian Boucher in Opinion | 27 MAR 20

‘You Can’t Do This By Yourself’: Can US Museums and Artists Survive Covid-19?

Regional institutions suffer major losses to their endowments, as artists look to emergency grant programmes and New York State considers a rent suspension

BY ​Brian Boucher in Opinion | 27 MAR 20

When The New York Times reported that New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art faces a US$100 million loss from the Covid-19 pandemic, alarm bells sounded throughout the US art world. Will smaller institutions, who don’t have the Met’s pre-coronavirus endowment of US$3.6 billion, be able to survive? And how will artists, often living in straitened circumstances, find resources?

‘If that’s the situation the Met is in, how do we weather this?’ Hesse McGraw, director of the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston (CAMH), asked me, after a conference call with other local museum directors. The American Alliance of Museums (AAM) estimates that US museums are now losing at least US$33 million a day, and that up to 30 percent of museums (including children’s museums, historic sites and other institutions) will fail without considerable help. 

Organizations like the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) are hosting regular conference calls with member institutions. The California Arts Council, a state agency, is prioritizing its 18 grant programmes, which are doling out US$24 million this year. In New York, a hotspot for the disease as well as a home to dozens of museums, the New York Community Trust, with support from numerous charitable foundations, has set up the US$75 million NYC COVID-19 Response & Impact Fund to provide grants and loans to city non-profits, including arts and culture organizations. 

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2007. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

But aid may not be coming fast enough. On 25 March, the Los Angeles Times reported that two key LA art museums, the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Hammer Museum, had laid off a combined 247 hourly employees, giving a foretaste of what may play out in the coming days.

In Houston, CAMH cancelled its annual spring gala, which grosses as much as US$600,000, 15 percent of its annual budget. Houston’s economy is largely tied to oil and gas, McGraw pointed out, so donors and local foundations will also take a hit. With an annual budget of about US$3.4 million, the museum’s endowment had been US$9 million, and had dropped about a quarter in value when we spoke on 21 March. All the same, McGraw has committed to keeping the institution’s 26 full-time staff and about the same number of part-timers on the payroll. As far as getting help from area foundations or local government, he said, it remains to be seen what might be available because, as he said, ‘We haven’t reached the bottom yet.’

Jill Snyder, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, is on a constant round of information-sharing phone calls like those organized by AAMD. MOCA also cancelled its spring gala, which typically provides about 10 percent of the annual operating budget; the museum typically earns another 10 percent of its US$3.5 million operating budget from sources like the store and space rental, and so faces about a 20 percent loss on the year. Before the stock market crash, the museum’s endowment was about US$5 million; its value has plummeted 19 percent since 1 January.

‘For most institutions like mine, with operating budgets of between US$2 million and US$5 million, 55 percent of our budgets are salary,’ she said. ‘In a conversation among the board last night, we decided that to cut enough to offset all those losses would be a scorched-earth approach.’ The museum employs about 30 professional staff and almost as many hourly employees, all of whom she aims to keep on staff: ‘If we cut into our people, we cut into our core mission.’

Her professional staff, she noted, can work from home, but what about hourly staff? Amidst a looming surge of hospital patients, she says, she’s looking into the possibility of paying hourly workers to contribute to relief efforts, for example one organized by the Jo-Ann Fabric and Craft store chain, which is donating materials for masks and gowns for medical staff. 

Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, 2012. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Non-profits that have long supported artists will be crucial backstops. ‘The greatest need is getting funding to artists,’ said New York Foundation for the Arts director Michael L. Royce in an email. ‘Based on our past experiences with the New York Arts Recovery Fund after 9/11 and the NYFA Emergency Relief Fund after Hurricane Sandy for artists living in New Jersey, New York and Connecticut, when it comes to emergency grants, the sooner funding is made available, the quicker individuals and organizations can feel remotely stabilized.’

The Art Dealers Association of America, which organizes the annual Art Show, in New York, is advocating one new proposal that could help artists: New York State Senator Michael Gianaris is proposing legislation that would suspend rent payment obligations for up to three months for small businesses and individuals experiencing hardship.

New York artist Matteo Callegari was already staying at home before New York’s state government ordered nonessential businesses to close and citizens to stay home whenever possible. ‘I’m trying to use the time the best I can,’ he said. ‘I had the idea to start a video work, which I’ve never done.’ Last year, he created the non-profit Light for the Amazon to aid children in villages near the rainforest in Peru, and is using the downtime to read up on effective strategies. ‘Financially, this is going to be really bad,’ he predicted. ‘I can’t tell if I’m going to have income anytime soon. I’ll see how long I can live on savings.’ 

‘As an artist, you master the skill of survival, especially if, like me, you come from a blue-collar family,’ he went on. ‘And since I’m in the Amazon for weeks at a time with no electricity and very little running water, just having a hot shower and a refrigerator is pretty amazing.’

Artist Candida Alvarez has been a professor for two decades at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, which will continue to provide her with income. On the other hand, her art income ‘is not so steady,’ she said. The child of Puerto Rican parents, she is connected to a community that has suffered crushing losses in recent years, including thousands of deaths from Hurricane Maria in 2017, and, this year, earthquakes. The island, a US territory, had reported two coronavirus deaths at time of writing. 

Alvarez considers herself fortunate to have two galleries, Monique Meloche in Chicago and Gavlak in Los Angeles and Palm Beach, Florida. ‘I’m lucky because I just had two shows, including one at Monique Meloche that only lost its last week on view due to the gallery’s closure,’ she said. Asked what advice she has for artists who will suffer great losses to Covid-19, she was philosophical. ‘Stay with the work because it empowers you,’ she said. ‘And don’t be afraid to ask for help. You can’t do this by yourself.’

Main image: Contemporary Art Museum, Houston, 2019. Courtesy: Contemporary Art Museum, Houston 

Brian Boucher is a freelance writer who has contributed to The New York Times, Playboy, New York Magazine and other publications. He was previously a staff writer at Artnet News and staff writer and editor at Art in America. He lives in New York.  

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