Culture in the time of COVID-19

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The George Eastman Museum will implement hygiene protocols, including face masks, when it reopens.
(Photo courtesy of George Eastman House)

For Bruce Barnes, a museum is a shared experience.

However, at the George Eastman Museum, where Barnes is director, and dozens of Rochester’s beloved cultural institutions, sharing takes on a whole new meaning as the world continues to face challenges as a result of COVID-19. 

As the global pandemic continues, Rochester’s museums and theaters have been left with no choice but to plan for sustainable, manageable futures that emphasize safety and financial stability. At the same time, decision makers at these institutions are innovating in order to adapt and survive.

No visitors, no revenue 

Earned revenue for cultural institutions is derived primarily from admission fees, subscriptions, and space rentals, plus the sale of merchandise and food in gift shops and cafés. 

Due to the highly contagious nature of COVID-19, all nonessential businesses in New York were ordered to shift to virtual operations as of March 22 under the New York State on PAUSE mandate. This forced the shutdown of highly public and interactive cultural attractions, causing substantial impacts on planned programming and finances.

“We’ve been impacted in the worst of ways,” says Hillary Olson, president and CEO of the Rochester Museum & Science Center. “Fifty-seven to 60 percent of our revenue is earned revenue. Zero tickets sold means zero programming … from admissions and rentals all the way down to the gift shop. We’re taking a real financial hit.”

With an annual budget of roughly $7 million, RMSC’s funding also comes from state, federal and county sources as well as a variety of donors and grants. 

“Some of our funding has continued and some has really slowed. If there’s a public component attached to the program such as after-school programs, we can’t do it,” Olson says. “Our reserves come from our endowment, and our endowment is down significantly along with the stock market.”

For institutions that operate under a subscription model like the Geva Theatre Center, returning money to subscribers is obligatory if they ask to be refunded. 

“At our heart we gather a lot of people together in one space,” says Christopher Mannelli, executive director of Geva. “It became clear in early March we couldn’t do that. We had to cancel two productions before the end of their runs.”

When patrons sign up for a subscription, the theater usually collects that money a year prior, keeps it in reserve and then releases it as shows take place. 

“Right now, subscriptions are a bit of a liability because we can’t perform the last two shows, and refunds become a strain on our cash reserves,” Mannelli says.

Two canceled Wilson Stage shows would have brought in around $350,000 each, Mannelli notes, and while many subscribers have asked for refunds, many have also agreed to donate money back to the theater. 

Rochester’s Strong Museum of Play has lost nearly $1.5 million in anticipated revenue so far, and will most likely lose around $2 million by the time the facility reopens, says Steve Dubnik, president and CEO. The museum also had to pause its large expansion project.

Still, Dubnik notes how lack of expenses, such as food for guests, helps offset such an enormous loss.

“We’re not on the brink of running out of money, yet we do have concerns about the impact for the year,” Dubnik says. “All nonprofit institutions live through shocks to the system, but this is unlike anything we’ve anything experienced before.”

Similarly, Barnes feels confident the George Eastman Museum will survive tough times.

“I don’t think we’re in a situation where the George Eastman Museum is living on the brink of continuing to exist. If things got sufficiently bad, we’d have to think about trimming staff,” Barnes says. “I’m hoping to avoid letting anyone go, for their benefit and for the benefit of the institution.” 

Seeking assistance

A number of Rochester cultural institutions have been able to avoid layoffs or furloughs. Some are taking advantage of the federal Paycheck Protection Program, which is designed to provide a direct incentive for small businesses to keep their workers on payroll.

“The Strong Museum was successful in obtaining PPP funds. We’ve been able to use that to have staff work from home as much as possible,” Dubnik says. 

Olson says the museum’s PPP loan will help RMSC pay staff and other expenses through June. 

“After that, it gets a lot tougher,” Olson says.

Other organizations like Geva have had to trim staff, however. Excluding actors, designers and directors, the theater employs 50 full-time staffers and 50 part-timers.

“At this point half our staff is furloughed. The other half is on a shared-work program where they’ve taken a reduction in pay,” Mannelli says.

Aside from loans and grants, Geva is still relying heavily on fundraising efforts from patrons and donors. The theater’s annual gala was set to take place June 5, which it still is—just not in person.

“The gala always supports our education programming, but this year it will support everything going on at the theater,” Mannelli says. “A loan is a loan, but we really need contribution and grant money right now because our earned revenue has dried up completely.” 

Many local institutions have applied for loans from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts, each of which is distributing $75 million to arts and humanities organizations affected by COVID-19. The funding for the NEH and NEA comes from the federal government’s $2.2 trillion economic stimulus plan.

These organizations typically obtain federal money for programming rather than operational support, and as Olson mentions, these funds run out fast.

“RMSC is applying for everything we can possibly apply for … but so are other organizations all over the country,” she says.

Transitioning online 

Aside from on-site security, maintenance crews and staff curating special exhibits, Rochester’s cultural attractions are operating their physical spaces as minimally as possible to help flatten the COVID-19 curve. Live exhibitions have been converted into interactive, online exhibits. 

Dubnik and staff at the Strong Museum took action as soon as the number of local COVID-19 cases began to rise.

“We had a period of time where we saw what was coming prior to shutting down,” Dubnik says. “As concern grew, attendance was already dropping prior to the shutdown. We had to prepare how to fulfill our mission of preserving play.” 

Dubnik’s staff quickly put together a variety of videos, activities and social media content to keep patrons engaged virtually. He also notes the importance of documenting this unique time in history as it relates to his museum’s exhibits.

“We’ve asked constituents to document how they’re playing during this quarantine period. We’re going to maintain photos and videos to preserve this history,” Dubnik says.

The RMSC’s popular planetarium show now streams each Wednesday online, bringing a mainstay exhibit to people’s screens in Rochester and beyond.

Geva is generating online content including podcasts and a special “happiness hour” stream each week featuring music and stories related to the theatre. The venue was able to film its last two shows for ticket holders to stream online.

“We’re finding ways to keep busy and make a difference. Our education team is working in overdrive,” Mannelli says. “We have staff creating content for students who were supposed to see our shows; our costume department is making masks for hospitals.”

New ideas

For some institutions, shifting to virtual programming has opened new doors and ignited fresh ideas that might not have come to the surface otherwise. 

“If there’s any silver lining at all in this terrible crisis, it’s that we’ve done much more online than we’ve ever done before,” Barnes says. ‘We’ve had tremendous success in online gallery talks that turned into webinars, and we’re putting up a series of digitized films up online.”

Virtual success also can be attributed to this type of programming’s convenient and accessible nature. Viewers worldwide can access exhibits and content from museums that may have been formerly inaccessible to them. 

“Putting our content online is pushing us to think creatively and reach more people in different places. We can have a nationwide and worldwide impact,” Olson says. 

“We’ve reached audiences we wouldn’t have reached,” says Barnes, echoing Olson. “A lot of the people who watched our webinars were people who might not have been able to visit the museum, from countries around the world.”

The George Eastman Museum plans to continue these programs after reopening because of audience response to them. 

“People are stuck at home, but at the same time people will discover us over time and we’ll build a base of people who are loyally engaged,” Barnes says.

Life After Covid-19 

Rochester Museum and Science Center is looking into timed tickets for entrance to the museum to offer a safe experience.
(Photo courtesy of RMSC)

Offering safe experiences to visitors takes precedence over any other initiative, the leaders of Rochester’s cultural attractions say. Staff members are already planning for strict social distancing and management regulations to keep visitors safe and at ease once they can reopen. 

As part of New York’s four-phase reopening plan announced this month, cultural attractions such as museums, cinemas and theatres are set to reopen in phase four.

RMSC is looking into timed tickets for entrance to the museum, limited planetarium seating, mandatory mask wearing, increased rate of disinfecting, and adjusted gallery occupancy limits. 

“We’re (working) with custodial and facility staff to make sure they have the tools available for a comprehensive disinfectant plan. There will be consistent cleaning,” Olson says.

The Strong Museum is evaluating its traffic flows and weighing alternative options for exhibits that may be too risky to reopen right away.

“We’re looking at which exhibits can be cleaned and sanitized on a consistent basis,” Dubnik explains. “We might have to close some exhibits, but we’re still thinking about what alternative interactions to replace them with so that people are still learning and enjoying.” 

Since Strong’s space is a high-touch, high-interaction museum, Dubnik’s staff will work on reimagining that sort of entertainment.

“A lot of the things we’re doing here short term, we’ll have the opportunity to learn from,” he says. 

While the George Eastman Museum has plans in place for the implementation of face masks, social distancing, disinfecting, and hand hygiene protocols, Barnes acknowledges that the museum’s Dryden Theatre poses a different challenge.

“Anything where you have people seated next to one another may be problematic,” he says. 

However, the theater is closed until August for construction, which will give staff time to plan effectively.

“It will give us time to let the health situation get better. We’ll look at what the rules are and exercise good judgment,” Barnes says. “Health has to come first for our employees and guests.”

If the museum is fortunate, he says, it will be able to reopen in mid-July. Barnes also hopes there will be a large audience of people eager to engage with the arts again. 

“I continue to believe that people will want to come to museums,” he says. “There may be an adjustment period, but there’s something special about direct experiences and seeing objects.”

RMSC plans to reopen in phase four of New York’s reopening plan. For now, the museum is focused on internal training and creating plans that run through the end of 2020. 

This planning includes reduced ticket sales and revenues until a vaccine for COVID-19 has been developed, as well as outreach programs for students who can’t visit the museum on field trips due to the pandemic.

“We’re thinking about what the fall looks like and how people will come back to this type of place,” Olson says.

Mannelli says Geva is focused on creating short-term plans shaped by uncertainty. 

“We’re not able to accurately plan right now because we don’t know what the steps are,” he says. “If I knew come Sept. 1shows were going to be back to normal, I could make a plan, but things are so up in the air.”

He is waiting for more instructions and information from state officials before he chooses to steer plans in any one direction.

“We have to come up with tons of scenarios. We know it’s not going to be business as usual,” Mannelli says.

George Eastman Museum faces a similar challenge.

“We don’t know how long we’ll be closed with respect to admission revenue or what people’s attitudes will be when we reopen,” Barnes says. “I can imagine us going to full attendance quickly. Or, people might have a bunker mentality. Hopefully, the mentalities balance out.”

The pandemic has allowed for a time of reflection and creativity. The curatorial team at the Eastman Museum is excited to engage in an intensive set of experimentations now through the end of 2020.

“When we find an experiment that works, we refine it and create a model we can continue using moving forward,” Barnes says. 

This positive energy and outlook likely will position Rochester’s iconic cultural institutions for success in a post-COVID-19 world, their leaders believe.

“One of the reasons cultural institutions are here in the world is that they support people’s healing and well-being,” Olson says. “We want to be a part of that, but we want to be as thoughtful as possible and make sure everyone who comes is safe.”

Robert Mantell is a Rochester-area freelance writer. All Rochester Beacon coronavirus articles are collected here.

One thought on “Culture in the time of COVID-19

  1. Read it for a while but ended up scrolling through it. Again, well written, but needs to sooo much shorter or altered to make it easier to break off and start again.

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