In early March, the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston held one of the biggest openings in its 72-year history for the exhibition “Slowed and Throwed,” which charts the life and legacy of the pioneering musician DJ Screw. Lines went around the block, and at one point museumgoers could only be admitted one-in-for-every-one-out because the building was at capacity. By the end of the next week, on March 11, Houston mayor Sylvester Turner declared a local state of disaster to help contain the novel coronavirus. The CAMH, like many other visual arts institutions in the city’s art hub, has since closed its space.
The temporary closure of museums and galleries is taking a seismic financial toll on institutions big and small. In a report concerning the fate of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the New York Times reported that “about a third of museums surveyed in the United States were operating in the red or close to it before coronavirus,” and a third of museums across the country may not reopen if the crisis continues at this pace. Texas museums and galleries are just as susceptible to those repercussions.
Given that it’s still unknown how long the new virus and its effects will last, many Texas institutions don’t quite know the extent of the financial hit they might take, or even what comes next. Regardless, they’re already feeling the effects: CAMH’s annual fund-raising gala and art auction, which benefits its exhibitions and programs, was set for April 3 and has been postponed with no new date announced. According to the museum’s 2018 annual report, 83 percent of the institution’s revenue came from contributions or pledges, and those vital funds are difficult to collect without fund-raising events. The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, which attracts about 200,000 visitors annually, is seeing a loss of revenue from ticket sales and gift shop sales. While the Modern is still paying its employees, both full and part time, the pandemic’s impact—on the museum and beyond—is expected to be felt for years.
San Antonio’s Blue Star Contemporary, as another nonprofit art institution, is also facing a challenging financial period—it had to postpone its major annual fund-raiser, originally scheduled for May 14, that was to celebrate its thirtieth anniversary. Still, Mary Heathcott, Blue Star’s executive director, says they’re particularly fortunate to be in a city that supports the arts: The San Antonio Area Foundation, a community-based nonprofit, announced an emergency response grants program shortly after closures began in the city. Other initiatives from San Antonio’s Department of Arts and Culture and Luminaria Contemporary Arts Festival quickly followed suit to provide resources and funding for small galleries and artists.
“There seems to be a lot of generosity that’s kind of seeping through in this time that we’re all worried and biting our nails,” Heathcott says. “There have been some really bright spots in our community with organizations and people coming forward with offers to help.”
And although their doors are closed, beloved Texas art museums haven’t stopped showing art altogether. “Our belief as an institution is that artists lead the way,” says Hesse McGraw, the director of CAMH. “And even in the moments of greatest cultural stress, we need to trust artists … I think the way that artists can shine through is by sharing the kind of humanity that exists even in the depths of this crisis.”
CAMH officially shuttered on March 16. By the next day, they had their first Virtual Open Studio up on Instagram. It invited viewers to make a mock-up of their homes using paper, markers, and recycled materials—something made possible by the fact that the museum already had a social media manager and videographer on staff who were ready to put together content for digital platforms. Since then, the museum has hosted Virtual Drop-In Experiences, which feature guided discussions and pop-up activities, such as a scavenger hunt for common sounds, so that anyone can experience exhibitions free from home, as well as a virtual music festival pulled together by their teen council.
Other establishments across Texas, such as the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, have been mining their archives and thinking up ways to repurpose that trove of material for digital museumgoers. Shortly after its closing, the museum kicked off a YouTube series, “Being There: Revisiting Tuesday Evenings at the Modern” that pairs old video footage from its long-running in-person weekly lectures with a Q&A session featuring the Modern’s curator of education. According to Kendal Smith Lake, the Modern’s director of communications, the museum is also tweaking two hands-on educational programs and taking them online—”Drawing from the Collection,” which features instructional videos by local artists of drawing exercises based on what’s on view at the museum, and “Wonderful Wednesdays,” a project that finds their resident art education staff providing a guide to using materials easily accessible at home to create unusual works. From the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas to the Contemporary Austin, museums are still putting on art shows right now, albeit in a different way.
While larger institutions are able to put together digital content to support their closed physical spaces, other museums and commercial galleries across the state haven’t been as fortunate. To help smaller galleries and underfunded ventures, the nonprofit online magazine Glasstire started a series, Five-Minute Tours, that features arts spaces in Lubbock, Odessa, Galveston, Tyler, and beyond. Glasstire posted a callout for video submissions from curators and gallery owners in Texas last month, and has published more than fifty videos since then. “Half of the contributors are artists and creative people,” says Christina Rees, editor in chief of Glasstire. “Right now, they’re at home and they’re willing to do interesting things. And they’d like for these things to be seen.”
Smaller commercial art galleries across the state are especially feeling the financial blow given that their sales typically happen in person. Even with those constraints, they’re continuing to adapt. Hal Marcus Gallery in El Paso, which is run by a three-person team, showcases more than one hundred local artists and is working on updating its website to make it more accessible for people to browse and buy art from afar. Austin’s grayDUCK Gallery, another small commercial gallery, run by Jill Schroeder, posted a video walk-through of their latest exhibition, which was originally set to be on view from March 6 to April 19. Both owners I spoke with remain hopeful that they’ll be able to open their doors sooner rather than later, but Schroeder says she doesn’t know what that could look like. “Are we just going to skip opening parties altogether and have people trickle in small groups at a time? Instead of an artist talk, are we going to do our podcast?” Schroeder says. “I imagine even once we open, it’s still going to look a little bit different.”
Art institutions across Texas are adapting to these unprecedented circumstances in real time, using their resources to continue supporting their creative communities. While it’s a time full of uncertainty, it’s also a moment for experimentation and, hopefully, growth. “Clearly we will not be the same institution on the other side of this as we were a month ago,” McGraw says. “And my hope is that it makes us more agile and more responsive and perhaps more attuned to the urgent realities of our world.”