Art lovers will soon be reunited with the Cézannes, Hindu deities, and Wedgwood vases at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The city’s big, comprehensive art museum will reopen at the beginning of September, first to members and then to the general public.
Visitors will find a somewhat limited experience developed by the museum in an effort to limit risk of COVID-19 transmission. Access will be restricted to a single entrance, the one on the main building’s north side, where visitors’ temperatures will be checked. A few galleries will remain closed.
No special events, concerts, or school groups are being booked, and initially there will be no food service. The Perelman annex will remain closed to the public for the time being.
Still, the reopening means the Art Museum can reestablish critical physical contact with patrons for the first time since shutting down in mid-March.
“I’ll take it. I’ll take anything,” said Marc J. Syken, a Center City lawyer who, until the shutdown, visited the Art Museum a couple of times a month. “I don’t go there to eat or shop, but to look at the paintings. As long as it opens and we have access to the galleries, that’s wonderful.”
Plans call for the museum to reopen to members Sept. 3, 4, and 5, with the general public admitted starting Sept. 6. The Rodin Museum opens Sept. 6 (with no preopening period). The number of visitors will be limited through the use of prepurchased timed tickets, though visitors preferring to not use the timed-ticket system will also be accommodated.
With the reopening, some of the 133 staff members cut in recent months will return. Of the 133, 25 took offers for voluntary separation agreements, and 85 positions were terminated. Now, with the reopening, 22 furloughed staff members will be recalled, a spokesperson said.
The reopening isn’t expected to mean full restoration of the museum’s ticket revenue.
Attendance is expected to be between 1,500 and 1,700 visitors per day, or about half of what’s normal, said Jessica Sharpe, the museum’s chief of membership and visitor operations.
“We’ll start this way, and as we move through the year, we hope we will be in a position to raise those numbers based on demand and where we are with people’s willingness to take part in activities and government regulations for what’s permissible.”
Blockbuster exhibitions that can substantially boost attendance are not in the offing. The Dorrance Galleries, where temporary shows are mounted, remain closed.
“It’s painful, but it is our reality,” said Sharpe. “But it also gives the institution the ability to highlight its collections and the things we have on display on a daily basis. It’s an opportunity and a challenge.”
Other museums are coming to life. The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts plans to reopen to the public Sept. 12. The Franklin Institute reopened July 8, and has generally drawn between 250 and 500 visitors per day, or about 15% of its pre-COVID-19 average attendance.
“We had budgeted out a loss for this year, but we believe it is worth it to have that loss knowing that we are able to both physically and online go forward with our mission,” said Franklin Institute president and CEO Larry Dubinski.
One question mark for the Art Museum, Franklin Institute, and other cultural groups along the Parkway is the effect of the homeless encampment that has taken up residence near the Rodin Museum (which is administered by the Philadelphia Museum of Art). Area residents have complained about the tent city as a source of garbage, vandalism, public nudity, aggressive panhandling, and other kinds of behavior.
“The Parkway, this bejeweled boulevard of museums and cultural institutions, has been trashed to the point where it’s lost its magnetism,” said Ed Dougherty, who lives not far from the encampment, in an Inquirer article last week.
Sunday night, two or three tents were set up on the western edge of the Rodin’s property. Its front steps were strewn with a pillow, blanket, and a few other items.
The city is “working to reach an agreement for an amicable resolution to the camps while also actively connecting people experiencing homelessness to the services they need,” city spokesperson Mike Dunn said on Sunday, adding that Mayor Kenney has held “several productive meetings with camp leadership to listen to their concerns.”
An Art Museum spokesperson declined to comment on the encampment.
Even after the Art Museum’s reopening, COVID-19 safety concerns will keep a few of its works off-limits. One of its most provocative pieces, Marcel Duchamp’s Étant donnés — a kind of life-size diorama visible only through visitors pressing up against two small peepholes in a wooden door — will not be accessible to the public. Museum staff has not determined a way that would be safe for both visitors and the work of art itself, fearing that “mandatory cleaning of the object between guests would be detrimental to the object,” said Sharpe.
Visitors throughout the museum are required to wear face coverings and will be reminded to keep safe distancing. The museum won’t mark the floor with guides to keep people spaced, but will post recommended capacity numbers within spaces, “so they can see there are only supposed to be [for instance] five people in here, so if it’s good they can enter,” said Sharpe. “We didn’t want to hold anybody’s hand and say, ‘You have to go that way.’ There will be some self-governance, but we are not going to do it with a heavy hand.”
Hours of operation have been adjusted, with the museum now closed not only on Mondays, as it traditionally has been, but also Tuesdays.
Though the Art Museum is reopening without a blockbuster, its Horace Pippin show will be extended through December, and Thomas Eakins’ The Gross Clinic once again takes up residence in mid-September. The museum is also taking the moment to be topical with some smaller shows.