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New York's art museums open their doors again

Suzanne Cords
August 28, 2020

The global cultural scene has taken a massive beating from the COVID-19 pandemic. But in New York, two of the world's leading museums are now opening their doors again: the Met and the MoMA.

Visitors look at an Andy Warhol Marilyn Monroe piece at the The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)
Image: Getty Images/M. Loccisano

Following the coronavirus pandemic lockdown on March 13, the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Met) looked toward reopening in early July. "At the time, it seemed by many to be a drastically pessimistic forecast," Max Hollein, director of the famous museum, explained. "Now, of course, we realize that that was extremely optimistic."

In fact, New York has been one of the largest COVID-19 hotspots in the world. More than 32,000 infected people have died in the state, over 23,000 of them in New York City alone.

But with the reopening of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)on August 27 and the Met on August 29, some normalcy may be returning. Then again, nothing is really normal during an ongoing pandemic. Security checks at the entrances, maintaining minimum distances, a limited number of visitors, compulsory face masks and guided paths.

Yet one advantage, says Max Hollein, is that there are no "three objects" that the visitor absolutely must see and check off their list, unlike at the Louvre Museum in Paris. This helps to prevent massive crowds from building. But the director of the Met does not believe that there will be a huge stream of visitors in the near future anyway.

Museum eyes local tourism

Before the coronavirus outbreak, 7.4 million people a year came to the Met. The Manhattan art museum was founded in 1870 and is now the largest in the United States. Now Hollein expects three, at most four million visitors for the next 12 months.

"A third of our visitors used to come from abroad," says Hollein. "I don't think we will see a resurgence of tourism until a vaccine is found.

He and his team are therefore initially focusing on the local audience — although in the long term it is important to him that visitors come back from all over the world. "The Met is clearly not just a museum for New Yorkers," stresses the 51-year-old. "And we will of course work hard to regain the Met's main task of being a great encyclopedic museum for the world, and for all world citizens."

Metropolitan Museum of Art  director Max Hollein giving a speech in the museum's courtyard with two flatscreens and different statues
Pre-pandemic times at the Met: Max Hollein giving a speech in 2019Image: picture-alliance/dpa/B. Schwinghammer

But how long will it take for things to return to normal? Hollein is hoping two or three years. But even until then, the audience at the Met should feel comfortable: 

"That it still feels like a visit to a museum," he says. "That one has the feeling that one not only likes to be in this house, but also likes to be in company, even if one keeps distance to other people. But it is still a house for a community, that is very important for us."

Corona trumps birthday party

The Met should be celebrating its 150th birthday this year. But instead Max Hollein, who was only appointed head of the Met in August 2018, has been trying to stay afloat during a pandemic.

Unlike in Germany or Austria, museums in the USA are not financed by the public sector but by private foundations and through donation galas and entrance fees. The Met's financial shortfall currently stands at around $150 million (€126 million). 

Despite this, only 81 of the museum's approximately 2,400 employees have been laid off so far. But Hollein admits that, with declining revenues, the museum will have to make further cost cuts in terms of personnel, and the programming.

The newly renovated Museum of Modern Art: a silhouette of a flower with New York City skyscrapers
The elaborately renovated MoMa attracted legions of touristsImage: picture-alliance/J. Angelillo

The pandemic as an opportunity

Despite the limitations, Max Hollein also sees an opportunity: "This period is also an incredibly creative phase in which one thinks about oneself as an institution: How can we be present differently or digitally? How can we perhaps do what we wanted to implement in a completely different form? Which projects are particularly important to us and why?"

The Met director's employees also felt inspired by the pandemic to break new ground. "There was a much stronger will to work together, which actually seems almost absurd when everyone is alone at home," said Hollein. 

It was not until October 2019 that an extensive renovation was completed, and six months later the pandemic hit. Despite all the financial losses, the MoMA is granting art lovers free admission for a month. The new post-lockdown start should be a good one. Translation: Louisa Schaefer and Stuart Braun