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'Museums had better not be planning for a return to the status quo'

If institutions keep admission limits in place, they’ll come out of the coronavirus crisis in better health, says art critic Blake Gopnik

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Packing them in? Crowds jostle to see the Mona Lisa at the Louvre Photo: Max Fercondini

Packing them in? Crowds jostle to see the Mona Lisa at the Louvre Photo: Max Fercondini

Empty theatres, closed shops, deserted restaurants—I live in Hell’s Kitchen, a block from Times Square and therefore in the thick of New York City’s pandemic darkness. It also puts me within striking distance of several great art museums, which have reliably brought light into that gloom. There’s nothing like a visit to the Jackson Pollocks at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), or the Mary Cassatts at the Metropolitan, to free the mind from thoughts of Covid-19.

That plague, so greedily smashing our public culture, has been weirdly kind to recent museumgoers: no more elbowing in front of selfie-snapping crowds, no filtering out professorial types in seminar mode, no struggling amid chaos for some close and quiet communion with art. With virus control limiting capacity by as much as 75% or 80%, museums are giving space—physical, but especially mental—to engage in deep, meaningful conversations with the works on view. This feels new. Visiting museums over the past month or two reminded me of what they felt like 20, 30, even 40 years ago, when they functioned as urban oases instead of teeming bazaars.

In our pandemic times, the Guggenheim has actually been airing ads urging visitors to come enjoy the museum “without the crowds”, tacitly admitting the horrors of many a visit experienced with them. For years now, the words “nightmare” and “MoMA” have come together in more conversations than I can count, and Tate Modern and the Louvre have had their share of bad-dream days.

So now that vaccines look set to resolve the pandemic, museums had better not be planning for a return to the status quo. They need to maintain the gloriously peaceful conditions that have prevailed when all else was dark.

Getting back to a pre-pandemic state might help museums’ bottom lines, and all sorts of institutional priorities, but it would be a gross dereliction of duty toward the art that museums are supposed to serve, and toward the public that is supposed to benefit from it. You aren’t making your art “available”, in any authentic sense when you’re creating conditions where no one can expect to spend more than ten seconds with a piece before being chased away by pressing bodies.

This isn’t an elitist position: the less you already know about art, the more time and peace you need to come to grips with it. Experts can just about be expected to grit their teeth and pull something out of a work, even under the worst conditions—the way a conductor might hear something inspiring through the noise of an ancient Toscanini shellac—but neophytes can walk away from chaotic museums with no idea about why they were even there.

Luckily, Covid has already put in place a system for controlling that chaos: a limited number of tickets, available on a first-come first-served basis. All that museums would have to do is preserve these admission limits, and they’d have come out of the coronavirus crisis in better health than they’ve had for decades.

We assume the best theatres and restaurants have to be booked in advance, because there’s a limit to how many people their artforms can serve. Why have we come to accept the idea that our greatest museums can pack us all in?

Yes, the drastic decrease in visitors would also mean a drastic fall in admission revenue, but admission fees weren’t being used only to fund art museums; the museums they were funding had also, or mostly, become tourist spectacles that had displaced the real, living art institutions we once had. For years, that has been utterly evident to just about every critic, art insider and curator you could name. (A dirty secret known to all art professionals: curators and their ilk pull strings to visit their colleagues’ museums when they are closed to lay folk; I admit that critics like me often show up then, too.)

Only the public was misled into thinking our vastly bigger, more crowded and therefore richer museums were also better, or at least normal and acceptable. A drop in income, although painful, might make sure museums spent their remaining funds on the central mission of allowing direct, powerful, authentic links to be forged between art and audiences—and that can happen only when a visit happens in some state of peace.

Epidemiologists are saying that, even with a vaccine, we may never return to the thoughtless crowding of pre-Covid culture. We can only pray that museums make sure that’s the case, while truly opening up their treasures to everyone.

• Blake Gopnik is an art critic based in New York where he is a frequent contributor to the New York Times. In 2020, he published Warhol, a comprehensive biography of the Pop artist

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