The Smithsonian Institution will shutter all of its Washington, DC-area sites, including the American Art Museum, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and the National Portrait Gallery, starting Monday, November 23 in response to a rapidly rising number of COVID-19 cases in the area.
Washington’s National Gallery of Art, too, will close starting Saturday. In an interview with the Washington Post, the museum’s director Kaywin Feldman said she made the decision in conjunction with Smithsonian head Lonnie Bunch.
“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.
With their announcements, the DC institutions join a growing list of museums across the United States that have closed—or will soon close—due to spikes in COVID numbers. For many, it’s a worst-case scenario realized as the long-predicted second wave of the pandemic, which has already led to a round of museum closures across Europe and the UK, takes hold in the US.
“It can’t help but feel like a step backward,” Feldman added. “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.”
Since the onset of fall, the rate of positive COVID tests has gone up dramatically across the US. Over the past week alone, the country has recorded an average of 162,816 cases per day, according to the New York Times. That’s up 77 percent from just two weeks ago.
Within the past seven days, governors in Colorado, Illinois, Minnesota, Washington, and other states have issued restrictions that include the closing of museums. Meanwhile, individual arts venues in Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Marfa, and other cities have opted to shut down either on their own accord or because of local citywide mandates.
“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,” read a joint statement issued on Wednesday by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, the Barnes Foundation, the Eastern State Penitentiary historic site, and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts after the state capital announced a wave of new restrictions that will go into effect Friday, November 20.
“As cultural and educational institutions, we take our civic responsibility very seriously, and as we work to defeat the pandemic together, we also firmly believe that our cultural institutions will play a central role in the city’s ultimate recovery,” the statement continued, before offering a plea for help: “We encourage our community to support our institutions in other ways during the season of giving, so that we can emerge from this period and welcome our visitors in the new year.”
Some museums, meanwhile, have decided to close the book on 2020 entirely, aiming instead for a January 2021 reopening. “This is, without a doubt, a very difficult time for museums and cultural organizations,” said a representative from the Minneapolis Institute of Art, which will remain closed for the rest of the year.
Earlier this week, the American Alliance of Museums estimated that nearly 30 percent of museums across the country remain closed because of the pandemic. By next week, that number will likely be much greater.
The survey also estimated that, as a result of the closures, museums anticipate losing 35 percent of their operating budget this year, and a total of 28 percent in 2021. The average museum has lost $850,000 to date, though the figure is much higher for large institutions.
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