The new Philadelphia Museum of Art user experience: Temperature scans and face masks. Just a few art lovers in a gallery at once, please. And you might want to eat before you come.
After a pandemic-forced shutdown stretching nearly six months, the museum reopened Thursday morning with an art encounter largely remade to conform to new safety guidelines.
The doors opened at 10 a.m. with several dozen patrons lined up at the north entrance. A few said they had been hesitant to show up. Many more said they were glad they did.
“I tell you, I needed some beauty after being cooped up. I needed to look at something bigger than myself,” said Kathleen Sullivan of Center City, who started on the third floor and worked her way down. “I’ve always been drawn to the [Japanese] tea house. I find it very peaceful.”
Peaceful was the mood through much of the Art Museum’s main building, open for the first time since March 13. Attendance in galleries was limited, sometimes to just two or three at a time, and timed tickets ensured that total daily attendance would be capped in this COVID-19 era to 1,700 — about 20% of capacity.
The cap turned out to be unnecessary; by day’s end, 679 members had come through the building, a spokesperson said.
Thursday’s reopening was for members. The museum opens to the general public Sunday with a pay-what-you-wish day, when bigger crowds are expected.
With an ambitious renovation still underway, parts of the building are off limits. But visitors on Thursday could be reunited with plenty of old friends: the 13-foot Diana, lithe and golden, perched above the Great Stair Hall; the startling natural music of water tricking in a fountain from the Abbey of Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa, transported from 12th-century France; an arms and armor section that was already luring back families; and Mary Cassatt’s Woman With a Pearl Necklace in a Loge.
“We had plans to come the day before they closed down. We thought it would be a couple of weeks,” said Maria Anderson of Warminster, who paused in front of Rogier van der Weyden’s diptych The Crucifixion, With the Virgin and St. John the Evangelist Mourning, along with friend Carol Chadwick of Horsham.
A couple of weeks turned into six months. “It was kind of a thrill to be one of the first back in,” said Anderson.
Not every work of art has returned. Art Museum staff have not been able to devise a way that is safe for both the art and its viewers to take in Étant donnés, Duchamp’s installation behind closed doors viewable only through two peepholes. Thursday it was off limits, blocked by a “Gallery Temporarily Closed” sign that somehow rendered the need to see it only all the more urgent.
Visitors will have to wait, as they will for other aspects of the Art Museum experience. The Perelman annex across the street remains closed. And the Rodin Museum, managed by the Art Museum, will not open this Sunday as originally planned.
On Thursday, the land on the west side of the Rodin was still set up with a handful of tents spilling over from the larger encampment of homeless people assembled at 22nd Street and the Parkway. Jessica Sharpe, the museum’s chief of membership and visitor operations, said that while the museum hopes for a “compassionate and understanding” solution to the encampment, the situation had prevented the museum from preparing the smaller Rodin for a reopening.
The city is continuing to work toward an amicable resolution, a city spokesperson said.
“While we understand some of the concerns the institutions along the Parkway may have, our ongoing efforts are continuing as planned with the camps ordered to resolve no later than Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020, at 9 a.m.,” spokesperson Mike Dunn said in an emailed statement. “Law enforcement has been and will continue to patrol the area to ensure the safety of residents, visitors, and camp participants until the camps are resolved. We will do everything we can to continue supporting our cultural institutions as they begin to reopen after being closed for many months due to COVID-19 precautions.”
The Art Museum’s closure was not its first, nor its longest. It closed in mid-April 1975 for a massive renovation project, throwing a gala for itself upon reopening in February 1976.
Operations in the main building will continue to be altered. Concerts and special events are on hold. Admission is only through one entrance, on the north side. From there, it is necessary to take an elevator or stairs to floors with galleries.
Thursday visitors might have encountered some confusing signage. Dining, for instance, could be found this way: through a series of galleries, beyond a hallway turning left, then right, and down a staircase. Delivered there, one was met with a guide — a very nice one — who said that food was available only at the north entrance. Which is where you started out.
Dining, in fact, won’t be immediately available anywhere on site. The museum is exploring bringing in a food truck to be parked outside of the main building, said Sharpe, and “hopefully around the holidays or in the new year we will have more robust food and beverage,” she said. For now, a stand just beyond the lobby gift shop is offering coffee, pastries and packaged snacks.
Like everything else, nothing about operating a museum in the COVID-19 era can happen without a great deal of forethought.