Thursday, December 2News That Matters

10 Ways for Museums to Survive and Thrive in a Post-Covid World

The tide was already turning in 2019, when the Museum of Modern Art in New York inaugurated its new building with 100 percent of its galleries devoted to its own art, and announced a new approach to programming (and membership sales) that put collection displays first. These should be golden years for collection presentations, and young curators in particular should take this chance to redeploy collections for new aims. Look at the Cleveland Museum of Art, whose recent acclaimed show “Stories From Storage” absorbed hundreds of rarely displayed objects — medieval illustrations of plague saints, Tibetan thangka paintings, animal figurines from interwar Vienna — into a chorus of new meanings.

But a show may not always be the smartest route. At the Serpentine Galleries in London, the curator Lucia Pietroiusti’s “General Ecology” program has delved into climate and culture through conferences, publications, podcasts, reading groups, residencies, film screenings — and almost no exhibitions. If the post-Covid museum must first rediscover its own collection, it could also imagine new and interlocking forms of programming that stretch well past the gallery walls. An added bonus: such programming is usually cheaper and greener.

Opera and dance companies have been doing this for years: when a production gets pricey, they share the costs and then the glory. A post-Covid museum could distribute the burden of its largest undertakings — as will happen with this fall’s Jasper Johns retrospective, jointly organized by the Whitney and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Institutions rightly appear to be getting more comfortable with joint collection acquisitions, as when the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and J. Paul Getty Museum co-acquired the archive of Robert Mapplethorpe, or the Philadelphia Museum and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts together bought Thomas Eakins’s “Gross Clinic.”

Museums could also help themselves by fashioning more ongoing partnerships: consider L’Internationale, a consortium of seven European modern art museums (from the Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid to SALT in Turkey) with a common program of exhibitions, debates and online projects. Why shouldn’t a yearslong research initiative span two university museums, or three? Might a museum in Minneapolis, with its substantial Somali population, have an ongoing partnership with one in Mogadishu?

From the American Museum of Natural History in New York to the Castello di Rivoli outside Turin, Italy, museums this spring have turned their galleries into vaccination sites. Why not let the doctors and nurses stay a while? Joining up with local hospitals, universities, labs and other (well-funded) research institutions seems a natural move for the post-Covid museum: imagine a psychiatrist collaborating on displays of portraiture, or a legal scholar engaging with the challenges of conceptual art.