Getty, Harvard art museums in the event of a pandemic


James Cuno, ’85, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust in Los Angeles, was at the Diego Rivera Museum in Mexico City in mid-March when he learned that California Governor Gavin Newsom had shut down all state-owned businesses non-essential and ordered residents to stay home. The doors of the Getty have since been closed. After his first “sudden shock,” Cuno began planning with colleagues how to bring the museum online, logging on to 9 a m daily Zoom meetings to review the latest updates and discuss how the Getty should respond.

Thinking back to those early days, Cuno recalls his time as director of the Harvard Art Museums – a position he held before similar stints at the Courtauld Institute in London and the Art Institute of Chicago. He was driving to work in September 2001 when a shocking announcement came on the radio that planes had crashed into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, killing thousands. He began to wonder how the tragedies in New York and Washington, DC might affect life in Cambridge. As a stream of security guards interrupted the morning meetings at the museum, he decided to carry on with his usual routine, hoping that a sense of normalcy would bring some comfort to his colleagues. But his plans quickly started to change: “What I realized was that at the end of the day, even though people were safe, what everyone wanted to do was go home. ” The lesson from that experience, Cuno said, was to adapt to both the psychological challenges of a traumatic event and the logistical hurdles it posed. It has also awakened him and other museum professionals to dimensions of their work that go far beyond the standards of curatorial, exhibitions and the routine management and direction of their institutions, large and small.

Cuno returned to those ideas in charting a path forward for the Getty. He helped plan responses for the four branches that make up the arts institution: its museum, research center, curatorial institute, and philanthropic arm. With future museum visitors sheltered in place and Getty experts barred from libraries and labs, Cuno did not simply attempt to mimic the normal experience of visiting and working at the museum, as some executives have done. of museum. Instead, he looked for offbeat ways to provide access to Getty’s offerings, from podcasts to social media challenges.

Cuno credits his time at Harvard museums for teaching him to prioritize an institution’s primary audience. At the University, he learned to focus his outreach efforts on professors and students of the history of art and architecture; likewise, in the pandemic, he has focused on keeping the Getty’s dedicated supporters engaged. “You’re concerned about your audience wanting to go into the museum, wanting to visit the museum, wanting to learn more about the kinds of things that are in the museum,” he explained.

Other than the usual trappings of an art museum’s website — images of paintings, artist biographies — Getty’s online offerings wouldn’t be out of place in an influencer’s Instagram account. In March, the Getty’s social media accounts asked fans of the museum to recreate some of its most iconic works from their homes. Thousands of people took part in the Getty Challenge, which museum leaders modeled on a similar initiative launched by the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and a social media account called “Between Art and Quarantine.” Participants created a socially distanced version of Grant Wood american gothic adding six feet of space, reproduced a sculpture by Jeff Koons (modeling clay) with a stack of socks, and channeled their quarantine frustrations into 21st century versions of Edvard Munch The Scream.

Assessing these decidedly modern outreach efforts, Cuno sends his thoughts back to World War II. As German planes bombarded London at night, curators at the National Gallery brought the art out of London to protect it from damage. “But people were asking for some access to art,” he said, commenting that culture can provide comfort in times of crisis. Thus the great concert pianist Myra Hess, determined not to leave the rooms of the museum empty, organized a series of musical performances there, attracting Londoners to the gallery almost every day. “It was a sign that civilization had not been lost,” Cuno said. “That they were still going to survive.”

Drawing on that story, he tried to reassure Getty supporters that the arts will endure. beyond the museum grounds as well. After local activists and writers called on the Getty Trust, whose endowment was $7 billion last year, to help local arts groups stay afloat, Cuno announced a $10 million fund. dollars for smaller museums and galleries in the Los Angeles area. “We knew early on that the local community of artists and art institutions was going to be terribly impacted by COVID,” he said. “They didn’t have the resources to support themselves.”

At Harvard

Establishments like the Getty face a set of challenges distinct from those faced by university museums. University museums need to work with university administrators to determine the best way forward, according to Harvard Art Museums Director Martha Tedeschi. Additionally, she said, these Harvard museums must coordinate with other museums on campus in their response to the pandemic, which may further reduce their flexibility. “In my conversations with our fellow museum directors here at Harvard and Boston,” she said, “we think the more things we can announce in tandem, the less confusing it is for our visitors.”

Martha Tedeschi, director of the Harvard Art Museums, said Zoom presentations “can be intimate yet open to everyone” while the facilities themselves remain closed.
Photograph by Danny Hoshino / Courtesy of Harvard Art Museums

But Cuno’s instinct for finding creative ways to virtually engage with museum collections is common among museum managers around the world, including Tedeschi. Harvard Art Museums has adapted some of its in-person programming to the demands of the pandemic, she says, making “a significant part of our collection available more vividly” than a traditional online catalog. For example, staff recently launched a series of seminars aimed at doctors working during the pandemic who have had short breaks in their hospital shifts; she hoped that during a 30-minute presentation on an artifact from the museum’s collection unrelated to medicine, they could be “refreshed through dialogue with other human beings” and have space away from their harrowing routines.

However, not all of the museum’s online programs are for medical workers. A recent Zoom seminar open to the general public that explored some of the museum’s artifacts drew around 600 attendees, far exceeding its normal cap of 15 without worrying that people would lose a close view of the object. “We realized you can be intimate and yet be open to everyone,” Tedeschi said. “It’s something that will change us forever. I think as an institution, even once our doors reopen, these kinds of virtual programs are not going away. »

When and how the doors to Harvard’s museums will reopen remains unclear. the The university’s decision to bring back only a minority of the undergraduate population, and restricting access to non-residential Harvard buildings even for this on-campus cohort, means College students won’t be visiting museums, in person, this fall. But at some point, Tedeschi and his team plan to help faculty members and graduate students access museum artifacts. And she hopes museum curators will eventually regain access to their labs (with strict social distancing protocols in place). “It’s very disorienting to be away from your collection and away from your audience,” she said. “Basically everything we do is preparing for this.”

Cuno also changed its attention towards planning for an eventual reopening. His team originally hoped to open the Getty Villa, which houses the antiquities collection, in early August, and the rest of the complex about a month later. But the resurgence of COVID in Southern California has derailed those plans. In the meantime, Cuno and his team are creating routes for visitors to take through the museum after the Getty reopens, trying to minimize density while maintaining access to exhibits. And he continues to brainstorm new ways for virtual visitors to interact with the museum’s offerings – a task he says can bring a sense of comfort to remote visitors during the pandemic, much like London concerts the did during World War II. “It gives them a sense of emotional and cultural relief,” he said. “It gives them a sense of gratitude that these things they are looking at have survived, stood the test of time, for centuries, and that we will survive, our civilization will survive.”


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