“There was a moment,” says Andrew Nairne, “when I was thinking, of course, we are like Nottingham Contemporary and the Hepworth Wakefield, places like that.” The director of Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge is guiding me around a gallery that’s “in rehearsals” for a socially distanced opening in August. “Then I remembered that the others don’t have a little cottage with tiny rooms and narrow corridors.”
Today, the National Gallery in London is reopening after COVID-19 abruptly shut the doors of British museums in mid-March. But Kettle’s Yard, like many others, is taking a slower, phased approach.
The institution regularly hosts shows in its new, airy galleries — an exhibition from the artist Linder will be extended into the autumn — but at its heart is the home of its founder, curator and collector Jim Ede. This takes the form of a series of knocked-through cottages, their awkward-shaped rooms brimming with art and delicate objects. It is meant to be a warm, hospitable place where visitors are allowed the freedom to sit in armchairs, leaf through books left out on tables and generally feel at home.
All of which also makes it a social-distancing nightmare.
Visitors have long had to book for a tour round the Edes’ house. They still will, but a maximum of 18, rather than 72, will be able to come each day. Hand sanitizers will be much in evidence, and visor-clad staff will figure out how to steer guests so they clash with neither each other, nor the precious objects. Ventilation has been fiercely debated.
“I said, ‘For heaven’s sake, can’t we just fling open some windows?’” Nairne says. The answer was: “On no account.”
The gorgeous Alfred Wallis paintings require proper climate control, although the air flow in the cottage has been deemed safe. The cafe, which normally occupies a tiny footprint into which tables are ingeniously crammed, will offer takeaways so that visitors can eat in the garden.
Similar dilemmas are being confronted by museums across the UK. Those in England and Northern Ireland, bar locked-down Leicester, have been allowed to reopen since last weekend; Scotland and Wales expect the green light later this month.
“We want the experience to feel safe, but also inviting, so that people aren’t scared,” says Alfredo Cramerotti, director of Mostyn gallery in Llandudno, who hopes to begin a phased reopening at the end of this month. They will be asking people to wear masks inside the gallery.
“It’s better not to pretend everything’s normal,” Cramerotti says. “It’s not.”
When I paid an early visit, the National Gallery was looking cleaner and fresher than I’ve ever known it. A choice of one-way routes is now prescribed, and booking a time slot is mandatory (though still, of course, free). Being able to see art in a museum again, after nearly four months, was joyful. Those able to visit will have a memorable experience, without the usual crowds.
“Normally,” says director Gabriele Finaldi, “we expect around 15,000 visitors a day. Early on, we expect between a fifth and a quarter of that.”
But months of total closure, followed by radically reduced visitor numbers for the foreseeable future, is a financial disaster. This is equally true for museums that charge for entrance and for those that are free but rely on visitors spending money in shops and restaurants, and buying tickets for one-off shows.
Finaldi says he is looking at the loss of ￡8 to ￡12 million (US$10.1 million to US$15.1 million) on a turnover of ￡48 million. He has canceled an exhibition of Dutch paintings, and delayed a Raphael show from next year to 2022.
Kettle’s Yard will be down by around ￡400,000, on a turnover of 1.8 million to two million pounds. Tate’s director, Maria Balshaw, enthusiastically welcomes the rescue package that the government announced on Sunday , with its ￡100 million earmarked for national museums and English Heritage, and a big boost to the national arts councils. But, although it will be a lifeline in the short term, the package won’t turn the clock back to the world before COVID-19.
“We earn 70 percent of our income,” she says. “We are a ￡100 million turnover business. We can’t manage being closed for a third of the year and then opening to a third of our visitors. It is a cliff-edge.”
The most commercially minded museums may have the hardest recovery.
Andrew Lovett, director of the Black Country Living Museum in Dudley, runs a 26-acre site with lots of outdoor space. That makes it easier to reopen — and it is planning to do so on Aug. 1. But the museum earns 94 percent of its income and so has virtually no cushioning — besides the government’s job retention scheme — from the raw realities of what it means to stop trading.
“We are a high-volume, low-margin operation,” he says. “During the period of lockdown, we would have had around 100,000 people through the door, each with a spend of around ￡20.”
It is also a strongly seasonal attraction, with the bulk of visitors coming in the summer. Not this year.
“It’s like three winters in a row,” Lovett says.
The price, for some, of reopening to very few visitors is deemed too high just now. For museums run by local councils, taking staff off furlough, or deploying workers back into museums from other services, may require tricky calculations about relative social value. The Royal Albert Memorial Museum is run and largely funded by Exeter city council.
“Reopening,” said a spokesman, “has to balance the value of the museum to the social, economic and cultural life of the city against the need to preserve the council’s scarce financial resources.”
In other words, the money is needed elsewhere; no reopening date has been set. You might think that being closed anyway for a new project — as is the case with Edinburgh’s Fruitmarket Gallery — would be serendipitous. But a complete stop, followed by socially distanced work, means a delayed project, which means costs.
“At the moment,” says Fiona Bradley, its director, “I feel quite far away from people’s agonies about hand-sanitizer and one-way systems.”
The revamped gallery was supposed to open in August. The date now given is February.
“COVID-19 has cost us half a million pounds,” says Bradley.
One irony is that organizations that have become less and less dependent on public money are now the most vulnerable. Tullie House in Carlisle was just preparing for a drop in funding from its hard-pressed local authority, and was enjoying excellent visitor numbers with its Treasures of China exhibition (now extended). But between March 24 and July 1, it has lost ￡388,000; its turnover is around one million pounds. Reserves have got the team through so far, but they will be eagerly eyeing the government’s emergency package.
“We desperately need donations, help from our patrons and member and some kind of bailout,” says director Andrew Mackay. “Otherwise, I don’t see us surviving.”
All the museum directors I speak to say the same: donations from supporters and visitors are more needed than ever. There will be sacrifices when visits become so highly controlled, often through bookable time slots.
Finaldi says he will miss the casual commuter or passerby popping into the National Gallery for a few moments before catching a train from nearby Charing Cross station.
“We have a learning space usually open 361 days a year, with lots of craft and making activities,” says Beth Bate, director of Dundee Contemporary Arts (DCA).
Usually families can just wander in. Now there will have to be a booking system. “We will lose something from that,” she says.
All the museum directors, large and small, say that reopening safely and rescheduling exhibitions is actually the easy part. The difficulties will come in a year or two. Those most dependent on international tourism do not expect visitor numbers to recover for some time. There will be no V-shaped recovery here. Budgets will be tighter.
“Blockbusters will be fewer and further between,” says Finaldi.
The emergency package will provide no silver bullet, and all eyes will be on the chancellor Rishi Sunak’s autumn statement. Everyone is thinking about how to work differently, how to make more money, how to spend less.
“It’s a great moment to really use our collections, to share them with our near neighbors,” says Simon Wallis, director of the Hepworth Wakefield, who plans to reopen on Aug. 1, which is Yorkshire Day.
“We can save money by not lugging art from all corners of the world — the insurance costs for doing so in recent years have been eye-watering,” Wallis says.
Not to mention, he adds, the costs to the planet.
Bate, meanwhile, is thinking about how DCA can work even more closely with her local authority in Dundee, on such issues as community cohesion, health and wellbeing. Amid all the crushing uncertainty there is still a sense of defiance and hope.
“I’ve never seen people do so much with so little,” says Wallis. “We will come up with imaginative solutions. If we in the arts are not going to, who is?”
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