We are living in a world that changes from one day to the next, in ways that we previously would not have believed possible. A global pandemic has upended life as we knew it. The chants of protesters fill streets here at home, across the nation, and across the globe. In the past, the visual power of art would have provided much-needed solace and inspiration to carry us through such uncertain times. It is a sad irony that during these difficult days, art museums such as the Nelson-Atkins sit silent. But this is the time when we can realize that culture and creativity are not defined by the physical space in which they exist. The arts can truly bring us together by fostering a shared meditative experience, bridging the divides that separate us, and uniting us even when we cannot be together.
This is an important moment in history as we move together toward healing and transformation. Working remotely, museum staff members are having many internal discussions about supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. Diversity has been one of the museum’s tenets for years, but there is a new urgency to these matters today. I am listening carefully to the concerns of staff, volunteers, and the community as we all work together to determine next steps.
As the pandemic closed museum doors on March 14, my colleagues discovered new and engaging ways to bring our collection to online audiences. We created a Virtual Museum Team tasked with transforming an encyclopedic museum into a nimble, resource-rich website that offers something for everyone. Look for Nelson-Atkins@Home, which offers projects and art tutorials for parents educating their children at home, an extensive collection search, and a rich supply of videos featuring artists, lectures, virtual tours and so much more.
At the same time, we realized the museum faced financial vulnerability. The many sources of operating revenue were no longer available and some difficult decisions had to be made. Our museum leaders and Board of Trustees concluded that the top priority was retaining the talented and devoted staff working at the Nelson-Atkins. The only way staff retention would be possible was by making the heartbreaking decision to eliminate special exhibitions and public programs for the May 1 through April 30, 2021 fiscal year. That, combined with sacrifices from the staff such as reducing work schedules by 20%, was the best path forward.
We are making good use of the weeks we are closed. Construction crews are working inside the Bloch Building on a massive project to replace the thin layer of finish on our ceilings. This repair project has been scheduled for some time and, because of the closure, we are able to accelerate progress.
We also have surveyed our members and visitors to determine their comfort levels about returning to public spaces and to the Nelson-Atkins specifically. We were among the first institutions to close to the public, but we may not be among the first to reopen. We are considering many scenarios, such as a soft opening, or tiered entrance, or touchless transactions. We are looking at this challenge from every angle and relying on data and guidance from scientists and our colleagues across the globe.
The pandemic and the protests have affected all of us, our daily lives, our relationships, and our sense of security. We struggle to bring clarity and calm to the fore as we join calls for immediate and lasting justice. We will open our doors with more resolve and intentionality after all these months of being closed.
Reigniting is complex. We will be in a very different place and yet we need to come out vividly asserting the values of creativity and inspiration for which the museum stands. It is through the many examples from our varied collection that we will craft a future, engaging with our community and celebrating the artists and arts all around us.
Until then, my workdays often find me in my home office, wishing I were at the museum with my colleagues and all of you who visit. I hope you are finding your own comfort, and I hope to welcome you back to the Nelson-Atkins very soon to enjoy the marvel of being in the presence of uplifting works of art.
–Julián Zugazagoitia and Menefee D. and Mary Louise Blackwell Director & CEO, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art