New York’s Art World Faces the Coronavirus Shutdown

The Metropolitan Museum of Art will reportedly only meet its payroll through the first week of April,
which will make layoffs inevitable.

Art offers a refuge in times of crisis. But what happens when the refuge goes dark?
Among the many incomprehensible victims of the coronavirus are New York City’s museums and galleries, all of which are now closed until further notice.

The first to shut down was the city’s largest, the Met. On March 12th, the museum announced that it was temporarily closing all three of its branches—the Beaux-Arts headquarters on Fifth Avenue, the Cloisters, and the Met Breuer—to help flatten the curve of the pandemic. Worse news arrived on March 18th, when the Times leaked a letter to the museum’s senior staff, from Max Hollein and Daniel H. Weiss, the director and the president and C.E.O., about a new plan to keep its doors closed until July, to help stave off financial disaster. The projected losses in revenue to the institution are a staggering hundred million dollars. One sad irony about this unimaginable moment is that those of us who have spent recent years complaining that talk of money has hijacked conversations about art now have no choice but to see numbers.

Of course, the Met’s closure is devastating in terms of cultural deprivation. In a perfect world, I’d be quarantined in one of the period rooms, curled up with a book on that comfy-looking white sofa in the opulent boudoir of the eighteenth-century Hôtel de Crillon. (The bed that Claudia slept on in “From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler” is in storage.) But it’s hard to focus on aesthetics alone when, with the Met as a bellwether, the economic implications for other precincts of the New York art world are so catastrophic. The Met, which has an endowment of roughly three billion dollars, even accounting for current market turmoil, is unlikely to face total collapse before it can reopen. 

Smaller institutions may face bigger challenges. The Tenement Museum, on the Lower East Side, has closed its doors and reduced its full-time and part-time staff from a hundred and thirty-eight people to five. 

The Alliance of American Museums is lobbying Congress for a four-billion-dollar relief package, citing the estimated fifty billion dollars a year that arts and history institutions contribute to the U.S. economy, not to mention the twelve billion dollars in tax revenue. 

(On Tuesday morning, the Met announced #CongressSaveCulture, a campaign to support the measure.) The A.A.M. is also seeking a short-term “universal charitable deduction” tax incentive to encourage donations; such solicitations are a tough ask in the best of times, let alone in a climate of panic. But the patrons of New York City have already taken action: on March 20th, eighteen New York-based philanthropies banded together to create a seventy-five-million-dollar “NYC COVID-19 Response & Impact Fund” for the city’s arts and social-services nonprofits.

As vital as cultural institutions are to the life of this city, it’s the living artists who are its heart. When I learned that the Met will reportedly only meet its payroll through the first week of April, which will make layoffs inevitable, I thought of all the artists who might lose their jobs. Many of the rank-and-file employees at any museum make art themselves; even Jeff Koons once manned the ticket booth and then the membership desk at the moma. For those artists who are lucky enough to support themselves with their art alone, it’s commercial galleries, not museums, that provide revenue. The big international chains (Gagosian, Zwirner, Hauser & Wirth) may grab most of the headlines, but some of the city’s most exciting young spaces (Bureau, Lomex, Situations) operate on a relative shoestring.

These are small businesses, some so small that their staff consists of a part-time assistant (if that) and a network of freelancers—art handlers, graphic designers, archivists, database managers, electricians, conservators, photographers, and Ph.D. candidates who moonlight writing press releases. But this nimble model makes such galleries ineligible for the emergency-relief measures that the city put in place for small businesses earlier this month, when the pandemic began taking its toll. What’s more, many of those contracted workers are self-employed and not incorporated, meaning that they don’t qualify for relief, either.

Amid the unprecedented uncertainty of this emergency, there is one comforting fact: artists don’t stop making art. The Met is a monument to that persistence, stocked with five thousand years’ worth of evidence. It will reopen, and the city’s gallery scene will survive, too, however battered and reconfigured. While the Met is closed, there are any number of ways to find shelter there from afar. A time-lapse video of the Egyptian Temple of Dendur, which has survived since 15 B.C., compresses an entire day, from dawn to twilight, into two fleeting minutes. As the scene shifts from tranquil to bustling, it feels like both an endorsement of solitude and a reassurance of collective pleasures.

Andrea K. Scott