Smithsonian, National Gallery to close as covid-19 cases spike

Similar shutdowns were announced earlier this week in Philadelphia and Chicago, representing the start of a second wave of shutdowns eight months after covid-19 first prompted widespread closures.

National Gallery of Art Director Kaywin Feldman and Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III decided to take action after monitoring the recent rise in coronavirus cases being reported.

“We both expressed growing concern about the increased number of cases in the region and across the country and came to the conclusion that caution needed to prevail to protect our visitors and staff,” Feldman said.

“It can’t help but feel like a step backward,” Feldman said about the decision. “But what’s different this time is we can see the light at the end of the tunnel. The prospect of a vaccine lifts our spirits. We have big plans for next year and lots to look forward to. We need to keep people safe in this period.”

The Smithsonian began a multistage reopening July 24, when the National Zoo and the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va., were the first to welcome back visitors after being closed for four months. The Smithsonian American Art Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Renwick Gallery reopened Sept. 18, with the National Museum of American History and the National Museum of the American Indian opening their doors a week later.

The decision to close the museums and zoo was made out of caution, Bunch emphasized, adding that cases are projected to rise after next week’s holiday, typically a busy time for the museums.

“I didn’t want to wait until we were in a crisis,” Bunch said. “We always said as long as [cases in] the District, Maryland and Virginia were on a downward slope, we’d keep the Smithsonian open. As they are now ratcheting up, the prudent thing is to protect our staff and visitors.”

The eight facilities recorded about a half million visits since the summer, a small fraction of typical attendance. The low numbers were partially intentional, with the museums capping attendance and operating on a reduced schedule. Only about 60 percent of passes were being used.

Bunch expects the shutdown to last through January. Smithsonian officials will monitor guidance from local governments, public health officials and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to determine its reopening strategy, he said. The first eight months of the pandemic have cost the world’s largest museum complex more than $50 million; this second closure will increase those losses.

“It’s important to recognize, just as before, that while we are closing the buildings, the Smithsonian is still open online,” he added.

Other cultural organizations — in the Washington region and nationally — have had to close or cancel events because of the pandemic. The Kennedy Center this week canceled live performances through April, as well as the Broadway shows it had booked for the summer. On Tuesday, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and five other institutions announced they would close Friday for six weeks because of changes in government directives. The Art Institute of Chicago announced Tuesday evening that it would close Thursday.

“It is extremely discouraging to close our doors at a moment when, during a normal year, we would be preparing to welcome even more visitors for the holiday season,” the leaders of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, the Barnes Foundation, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site wrote in a joint statement. “We understand that it is vitally important to ensure the safety and well-being of our staff, visitors, members, and volunteers and we support the efforts of our government and medical professionals in reducing the spread of the virus.”

Other major art museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Museum of Fine Art in Boston and the Museum of Fine Art in Houston, are tracking their local coronavirus numbers and coordinating with their colleagues.

“The governor and mayor have not requested closure of museums or any nonessential businesses or nonprofits,” said Kenneth Weine, a Met spokesman. “We will continue to be in touch with city and state officials and public health leaders and follow their lead; however, we believe that we can continue to operate safely.”

The new closures will harm an already fragile field. A survey from the American Alliance of Museums released this week found almost one-third of museums remain closed after eight months and more than half of museums have had to furlough or layoff staffers. About 30 percent of museum employees are out of work, according to the survey of 850 museum directors conducted last month.

The survey also found that the museums that have reopened were attracting 35 percent of normal attendance, a level that is not sustainable long-term, according to the report. Museums anticipate losing 35 percent of their income this year and about 28 percent next year.