By: Catherine Perez
After months of closed museums and galleries, industries are eager to reopen their doors to ticket paying visitors who are also itching to escape quarantine as stay at home restrictions are lifted nationwide. While plans to reopen may bring hope to many financially distressed institutions, they also provide a maze of government guidelines to navigate, as well as questions on how to safely operate in the midst of a global pandemic.
The Law of Force Majeure course at the University of Miami School of Law recently hosted Ashwin Krishnan, Jeff Gewirtz, and Irwin Raij to guest lecture on the effects of COVID-19 on the future of stadiums and venues. While each lecturer is a respected professional in the sports industry, many of the concerns raised are also applicable to museums and the art industry.
The guest lecturers expressed concerns regarding how venues will implement and ensure compliance with government guidelines. Each state has started to release general and industry-specific requirements to reopen businesses. While at a minimum these state guidelines are requiring patrons and employees of venues to maintain 6 feet of physical distance, a reduction in occupancy, and thorough cleaning of frequently touched surfaces, each state has its unique approach to reopening. Some states like Texas are reopening on a state-wide basis, while others like New York have a regional reopening approach. Additionally, some states like Louisiana released museum guidelines to allow these spaces to reopen in Phase 1, while New York has said museums will not reopen until Phase 4. Further complicating a unified industry strategy is the long list of specific requirements, in addition to general state guidelines, that museums will need to check off before reopening their doors. Some states, but not all, require affirmative confirmation that regulations are implemented and enforced. The diverse nature of the art industry, coupled with the range of state approaches to reopening, demonstrates that each museum and gallery will need to take a highly individualized look at its space while collaborating with nearby museums to efficiently create its reopening plan.
For example, while the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York saw approximately 7.4 million visitors in 2018, the smaller Frick Collection, down the street from the Met, saw only approximately 250,000 visitors. Even for institutions like the Frick and the Met that will operate under the same regional reopening plan, their efforts are bound to differ due to the differences in venue size and the number of guests that visit their halls. However, due to country-wide and international quarantines, museums will certainly see a large decrease in patrons, which should help ease the enforcement of physical distancing. But this raises the additional question of how these non-profit museums are going to fund efforts to ensure compliance with reopening guidelines. However individualized and regional each plan will need to be, there should be room for collaboration and resource sharing between museums within the same regions to help reduce costs and ease the transition.
The American Alliance of Museums (“AAM”) released its own considerations for museum reopenings. The AAM recommends that museums need to consider how to “limit person-to-person contact, monitor the number of visitors, and restrict or prohibit access to certain areas of the museum.” This could include online ticket sales, digital guides to visitors, interactive exhibit restrictions, capacity restrictions, no or limited access to certain spaces, group visit restrictions or cancelations, guided tours, public programs, new signage and barriers to enforce social distancing, changing the flow through the museum, and more. These guidelines will inevitably change the visitor experience and likely lead to further cancellations of blockbuster shows and events that cannot be smoothly and efficiently accommodated under new operating norms.
Regardless, museums should make great efforts to closely follow state guidelines to ensure that the new visitor experience is both safe and compliant. Strict compliance to incorporate these changes and requirements may bring high operating costs, but they will help museums and institutions avoid issues such as potential liability suits with visitors or employees for something as simple as not properly supplying hand sanitizer. An additional protective measure that museums can take is to include assumption of risk language on their tickets, informing visitors that they assume the risk of catching COVID-19 as part of their museum visit. The guest lecturers also discussed that while some venues and spaces have taken a look at their operating contracts for force majeure clauses as a route to potentially cut costs or excuse performance, many are hesitant to use these clauses due to the uncertain nature of the pandemic. Even with a clear-cut force majeure clause, institutions may not want to enforce these clauses and ruin relationships with landords who lease building space, publishers, and contractors who ship and assemble exhibits.
In short, museums should collaborate and dedicate resources towards navigating the reopening guidelines released by their respective states. These efforts will likely change the museum experience as we know it, raise operating costs at a time when museums are already suffering financially, and protect museums from potential liability issues down the line.