COVID and the Museum Experience

On July 9, 2020, Heidi Zuckerman, Founder of and former CEO & Director of the Aspen Art Museum, moderated a panel discussion between Ms. Kaywin Feldman, Director of the National Gallery of Art; Ms. Chong Siak Ching, CEO of the National Gallery of Singapore; and Mr. Franklin Sirmans, Director of the Perez Art Museum Miami. The program addressed the challenges as well as innovative approaches that museums are undertaking around the world to engage their audiences and sustain their activities during the pandemic. 

Museums During COVID. “Opened or closed, the Gallery is always a special place” began Feldman. While the National Gallery of Art has been closed, the museum has undergone renovations including the replacement of skylights which has only happened two other times in the museum’s history. For the Perez Art Museum Miami, Sirmans said “We’re taking advantage of being part of the international and national conversation happening between museums.” In Singapore, the National Gallery reopened two weeks ago and Chong navigated the shutdown with “crisis-management meetings before the closure to plan. Those meetings continued so our reopening went smoothly.” 

Museums Matter. Chong referenced a survey done in Singapore during the shutdown asking what jobs were considered essential. The result showed that artists were ranked as nonessential which has sparked a debate around the worth of art in society. “Faced with this sort of health crisis, where does art stand in the scheme of things?” asked Chong. “Have we taken art for granted? During this shutdown, I’m sure we’re listening to music and watching movies and we need this to feed our souls. Where do artists rank in the scheme of things?” Feldman agreed, citing a survey done in the United States that highlighted the disconnect between the public's high consumption of art and it’s view of artists as nonessential. “When the national gallery opened its doors, President Roosevelt said the gallery was dedicated to the American people to ensure that the human spirit would live on,” she said. “ The gallery is founded on the human spirit and shared humanity.” Sirmans added, “Art has always been in the service of something larger -- art in service of building community and instructing people how to see others.” 

The Virtual Experience. All three museum directors have had to explore new digital opportunities and, for Feldman, “The big lesson during COVID-19 is to see that the digital world offers us expansive opportunities that we haven’t taken advantage of before. What you can do digitally you can't do in person and vice versa.” The National Gallery of Singapore has added meditation and music to its digital art which has expanded its audience. “We’re now planning two museums,” said Chong. “One that is physical and one online that will reach different audiences.” Sirmans has seen the museum’s digital engagement grow in the previous months and it has “accelerated the process of finding complementary space between physical and digital.”  

Challenges Facing Museums. The biggest challenge facing museums around the world is uncertainty. Planning for multiple scenarios, loss of financial support and employees working remotely have tested museums and their leadership. “There’s no playbook,” said Feldman. “I worry about the employees who are working alone.” 

The Silver Lining. Despite the challenges COVID has placed on museums, the panel concluded by reflecting on positive outcomes and opportunities. “Communication has been our guiding light and is important to maintain cohesiveness,” said Sirmans regarding the Perez Art Museum Miami. At the National Gallery of Singapore, Chong has seen an increase in productivity and has made the physical and mental health of employees working from home a priority. “Working from home long term - what does it do to collaborations? We’re working on ways to not lose the team spirit,” she said. The National Gallery of Art is being led by Feldman’s three themes during COVID: “Connection, curiosity, and courage.”  

Click here to view the full discussion

Project summary

COVID and the Museum Experience
Countries: United States, Singapore
Impact Areas: Cultural Diplomacy
Program Areas: Culture