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Philly’s museums and arts groups hit the pause button again, and it’s time to ask: Will some disappear?

Arts and culture leaders are grimly resigned about public health measures, even as budgets are ruptured and employees are furloughed.

Preparations were underway Tuesday for "Permian Monsters: Life Before the Dinosaurs" even as new COVID-19 restrictions meant the exhibit, scheduled to open Friday at the Academy of Natural Sciences, would be postponed until at least Jan. 1.
Preparations were underway Tuesday for "Permian Monsters: Life Before the Dinosaurs" even as new COVID-19 restrictions meant the exhibit, scheduled to open Friday at the Academy of Natural Sciences, would be postponed until at least Jan. 1.Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

What’s six weeks in the existence of a 250-million-year-old saber-toothed gorgonopsid? Far briefer than a wink.

So the postponement of “Permian Monsters: Life Before the Dinosaurs,” the latest exhibition at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, is not even noticeable to the unwinking eye of the gorgonopsid.

But for the Academy of Natural Sciences itself, it was another uncertainty in a year of uncertainties dominated by the relentless march of the coronavirus around the world.

Originally scheduled to open this weekend, the exhibition has now been delayed until sometime after Jan. 1, 2021, in compliance with new restrictions announced by the city Monday to curb the spread of COVID-19.

“They’re unpacking it now,” an academy spokeswoman said the day after the city’s announcement. “They’ll set it up and then it will sit while we’re closed.”

And so a world dominated by Permian monsters has fallen prey to a tiny, nonliving bit of protein, nucleic acids, lipids, and other odds and ends. And it took just 91,250,000,000 days, give or take.

Shuttered along with the Academy are all other museums and libraries in Philadelphia, including the Museum of Art, the Franklin Institute, and the Barnes Foundation, all closed until at least Jan. 1.

The new restrictions are also reverberating in the performing arts. The Philadelphia Orchestra has enough performances already recorded to keep its “Digital Stage” online concerts going through the end of 2020, and the group is still tentatively planning to record more audience-less concerts in Verizon Hall in the coming weeks, a spokesperson said.

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Determined to do a Christmas show for online distribution, the Philly Pops is looking for a site outside of the city — and large enough to safely distance musicians from each other — where it can record.

The Philadelphia Chamber Music Society will continue to perform and put concerts online, but now must proceed without the small, socially distanced live audience whose presence has been regarded as a source of inspiration to performers.

A threat to a fragile sector

For groups that showed resourcefulness in moving operations online and making attendance safe for visitors, the new restrictions feel like a step backward. More critically, the new constraints threaten an already fragile sector.

“I think we have thrust the arts and culture community with this latest set of restrictions into a position of significantly increased vulnerability,” said Priscilla Luce, interim president and CEO of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance.

The health of the sector depends on whether help is forthcoming from city, state, and/or federal sources, she said. Advocates have argued that money from the Cares Act or some future relief package be channeled to arts groups whose finances have been devastated by the pandemic.

» Here are Philly’s current COVID-19 guidelines:

After initial COVID-19 shutdowns in March, many organizations made significant investments in reopening this summer or moving activities online, Luce points out, “and now it appears they won’t be able to reap any impact from that investment, at least for quite a while.”

Will the arts and culture sector begin to see some groups filing for bankruptcy, merging, or closing their doors for good?”

“I do believe that the threat has been increased dramatically to where the possibilities are greater that we will see those kinds of things happening,” Luce said.

Many theaters and other performing arts groups are forging ahead with online programming. The Kimmel Center has announced digital presentations like Hip Hop Nutcracker as well as an archived Pennsylvania Ballet performance of George Balanchine’s classic production of The Nutcracker. The Wilma Theater, Opera Philadelphia, and BalletX have been particularly active in creating projects specifically for an online format.

Grim resignation, and furloughs

Already operating at reduced capacity, museum leaders greeted this new phase in the strange, bleak world of the pandemic with a mixture of grim resignation and some confusion.

“We’ll probably lose about $100,000 in earned revenue from tickets, sales, and, you know, a little bit of [the] café between now and the end of the year,” said R. Scott Stephenson, president and chief executive of the Museum of the American Revolution. “We’ve already drastically reduced our capacity. Black Friday, for instance, last year, we had 3,500 visitors that single day. Our capacity right now [until the new closure went into effect Friday] is about 350, 10% of that, and we’re not hitting that. I’d say most days or, you know, maybe 150, 120.”

The lost revenue means the museum will have to furlough about a dozen employees, Stephenson said.

Furloughs and lost revenue, painful hallmarks of the summer’s virus shutdowns, are once again a feature of operations at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, as well. Museum officials said 57 employees will be furloughed. Those making over $100,000 are having their pay cut 10% during the closure (20% for $150,000-plus). Security and food-service workers employed by outside contractors have been sent home. It is unknown how many of those workers remain employed.

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A frustrated Larry Dubinski, president and CEO of the Franklin Institute, said he’s staring at a $500,000 loss thanks to the shutdown, although he said there will be no furloughs — largely due to earlier deep cuts.

“Closing our doors again, it’s disappointing,” he said. “Obviously, we were hoping there wouldn’t be a second shutdown but there is. But we’re focused on resiliency. Arts and culture and education is a backbone, is the landscape of the City of Philadelphia. And we have to be resilient and come back.”

‘A real pity’

Like the Academy of Natural Sciences, the museum at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts is facing postponement of new exhibitions. Three had been scheduled to open at the end of last week. They have already been installed, and will remain unseen by the public until January, should restrictions be lifted then.

“It’s a real pity because we haven’t really had a museum show since we reopened [in September],” said museum director Brooke Davis Anderson. “If the museum reopens after the new year, in the first week of January, these exhibitions would still have a three-month run.”

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Several museum officials expressed confusion at the city’s mandated closure. For instance, Stephenson noted that attendance at the museum is for the most point quite low — and controlled by timed tickets. Masks are required, and no instances of COVID-19 have been traced to institutional attendance. He contrasted that with the city’s decision to allow retail operations of all sizes to continue.

In a statement, the city’s Department of Health called the museum closures “regrettable” but necessary “to lower the number of gathering places throughout” the city.

The statement went on to say: “Research from around the world has shown that people coming together indoors, even if masked and distanced, can be dangerous. Museums and libraries, by their nature, are places where people are gathered with individuals outside of their household for long periods of time. Businesses and activities that were allowed to stay open are all operating at severely diminished capacity and the Health Department is explicitly saying that people should avoid those places unless absolutely necessary and spend as little time as possible there.”