“There have always been friendly rivalries among New York City museum directors, but since the pandemic started, we have come together in a way we may never have before,” says Ian Wardropper, the director of the Frick Collection. “There’s an amazing amount of cooperation.”
Wardropper was referring to the weekly or biweekly meetings the directors have been conducting for more than a year to share ideas about best practices and learn from each other. “It’s been a lifeline,” says Sally Tallant, the president and executive director of the Queens Museum. “If you were having a particularly difficult time, you could call anyone about how to handle it and they would make time to talk about it.”
Now that many New Yorkers are vaccinated and museums are returning to somewhat “normal” operations, “we decided to take a break over the summer and continue in the fall, but less frequently,” Wardropper says.
The meetings were originally started by Glenn Lowry, the director of the Museum of Modern Art. "Once the pandemic hit, it seemed urgent to have a forum where we could have a conversation among museum directors," he says. "So I volunteered to have my office set these calls up. It developed quickly in conversation with Adam Weinberg of the Whitney Museum of American Art, and then other directors joined in, including Max Hollein of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Richard Armstrong of the Guggenheim and Lisa Phillips of the New Museum." About 20 museum directors have attended the meetings at their height, with Lowry and Weinberg usually serving as hosts of the sessions, which last up to 45 minutes.
As the pandemic grew, so did the scope of the conversations. “There has been a lot of discussion about finances,” Wardropper says. “Mainly comparing notes on the deficits we anticipated and, over time, the actual deficits; possible remedies such as fundraising; the pay cuts most of us took and how they would affect the staff; the furloughs and, in some cases, layoffs that were necessary to meet this dramatic and historical financial challenge.” Weinberg adds: “We talked about support from corporations and foundations and focused on audience-driven revenues.”
“We’ve tackled a lot of issues collectively,” Lowry says. “How to reopen, how to have a policy around mask wearing, requirements over vaccinations, safety protocols within the institution, how to respond to the many crises that emerged over the last year, not the least of which was the call for racial justice and equity in the wake of not just George Floyd's murder but the murder of many black men and women."
Wardropper believes that the next topic that the museum directors will discuss is "the larger ongoing conversation about appropriate responses to issues of social justice facing museums and their boards. The issues of diversity and equity, and particularly racial justice, has been a constant topic of conversation with many passionate and thoughtful conversations and exchanges of information, examples of our individual responses and including discussions groups with specialists in diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion."
The museum directors have also discussed ways to adjust to and understand better their communities’ needs.
“We have commissioned new works by artists,” Tallant says, “and found ways to engage our audience visually, while seeing that those with limited internet access can still participate in our activities offline. We host what we call a ‘Cultural Food Pantry’ in collaboration with La Jornada, which delivers a week's supply of food. Since last June, we have provided food and art materials to over 38,000 families in Corona, Queens. We also offer free studio spaces to artists."
A month after the museum directors began to meet, Weinberg and Amy Roth, the chief operating officer of the Whitney, created a group of 25 museum chief operating officers which has been meeting weekly. “It has helped in standardising our guidelines,” Roth says. The group has also adjourned for the summer and plans to resume in the fall.
“My feeling is that we have created a kind of casual and ad hoc means by which we as directors of large and small institutions, city owned institutions and private institutions across all five boroughs have a way of communicating with each other that's very beneficial,” Lowry says. “People talk about what’s going on in their institution, they ask questions about what’s going on at other people’s institutions and we always find something to laugh about. That's to say we deal with serious issues, but we are also a kind of quasi therapy group.
Weinberg agrees: “What we laugh about is that we are all in the same boat.”