Will the museums survive the coronavirus shutdown?

As they contemplate opening their doors after Shavuot, museums around the country are still putting the pieces together.

THE HERZLIYA MUSEUM of Contemporary Art. (photo credit: Courtesy)
THE HERZLIYA MUSEUM of Contemporary Art.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
With a slit rather than an open door, museums around the country are tentatively reacting to the news that they can reopen as part of the easing of coronavirus restrictions.
Former culture minister Miri Regev made the announcement at the beginning of the month that the venerable cultural institutions could get back to business on May 17, but most of the museums responded by saying that they will not open their gates because there are still too many “issues.”
Among them are that the regulations about visitors are still not clear, and that the museums’ financial concerns have not been addressed. Most museums rely on donations, as well as ticket sales and cultural events, to be able to stay afloat. With zero income and an understandable reduction in donations, they say that it may be impossible to prepare for opening.
The Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art was the first to open its gates, on May 18, but among the museums that find it hard to return to full activity are Jerusalem’s Israel Museum, the Holon museums, and Beit Hatfutsot – The Museum of the Jewish People.
Israel Museum spokeswoman Yael Edelist said that the museum relies on ticket sales for its very survival. “Half of our ticket sales are to tourists,” she said. The museum also relies on income from events, revenues from the shop and restaurants, as well as donations and group tours. All of which were, obviously, nonexistent during the shutdown.
The museum’s director, Ido Bruno, said that he is longing for the day that they can open the museum’s gates to the public, but right now, according to him, the government does not give him the necessary tools to do so.
“We will obviously not be able to do it soon, and when we do, it will have to be very gradual,” he said.
According to Bruno the cost of opening the museum is enormous. “Even when our gates are shut, the mere need to preserve and protect our collections, which hold about 1.5 million articles, and the security – all that costs a lot of money, at times when our income is reduced to almost nothing.” According to him, without support from the government, opening the museum now would mean a deficit of over NIS 25 million in the museum’s budget.
THE TEL AVIV Museum of Art’s director Tania Coen-Uzzielli. (Roni Knaani)THE TEL AVIV Museum of Art’s director Tania Coen-Uzzielli. (Roni Knaani)
But elsewhere things look a little more optimistic, especially where the local municipalities lend a hand. Aya Lurie, the Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art’s director and chief curator, said that the opening was made possible thanks to Herzliya’s Mayor Moshe Fadlon, who undertook what she called “an important declarative act. His commitment to reopen the museum is a testimony to the importance the Herzliya Municipality places on the cultural life and artistic activities held in the city.”
 The focus of the museum’s current group of exhibitions, “Portrait Time II,” which opened shortly before the lockdown, is on portraits and their significance. In the current exhibitions, the painted portrait, depicting the human face on canvas or wooden panel, is given center stage. Two of the exhibitions expand our perspective on the portrait historically, focusing on 19th and early-20th century works – a time when the medium of photography undercut the documentary validity of painted portraits, but in doing so also freed it to engage in questions pertaining to the medium of painting itself. The exhibitions, which were due to close at the end of June, will stay open until the end of August 2020.
The Tel Aviv Museum of Art had launched one of its most significant exhibitions – “Jeff Koons: Absolute Value – From the Collection of Marie and Jose Mugrabi” – only days before the lockdown. This is the first one-man show of this important artist in Israel, and the local art world was very excited. The artist, who is considered the most famous living artist today, was supposed to come to Tel Aviv for the opening but could not fly here because of the pandemic.
At the same time, another very important exhibition, that of South African William Kentridge, also opened, as well as a few other very significant shows.
The Tel Aviv museum announced its reopening after Shavuot (June 2), thanking Mayor Ron Huldai for his efforts to facilitate the opening.
On June 1 at 6 p.m., as part of the opening events, the museum, together with Huldai, will hold a tribute to Ichilov Hospital’s medical staff, who will be invited to the ceremony and will be granted free access to the museum’s shows during the first week after its reopening. At 8 p.m. the museum will hold a tribute to Israeli art, in which video works created by Israeli artists will be screened, as part of a collaboration with ZAZ 10 Times Square (ZAZ10TS), simultaneously in New York City’s Times Square and on the walls of the Tel Aviv Museum.
The museum also announced a reopening promotion in which for every ticket purchased it will give one free ticket. Huldai said that “art is the lifeblood of the first Hebrew city from the day it was established. In the last weeks we worked relentlessly in order to help artists and workers of cultural establishments.”
Tania Coen-Uzzielli, the museum’s director, said: “I am excited to announce the reopening of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art and happy to invite everyone to come and see the amazing works of art directly. This opening was made possible as part of the city of Tel Aviv’s back-to-normal strategy led by the Mayor Huldai, who fights relentlessly for the survival of the culture life in the city.”
AYA LURIE, the Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art’s director and chief curator. (Iris Nesher)AYA LURIE, the Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art’s director and chief curator. (Iris Nesher)
Haifa museums will also begin to return to normalcy after Shavuot, opening first only on weekends. The first of the Haifa museums to open will be the Haifa Museum of Art, presenting an exhibition that examines feminism in the trans-nationality age, as well as the Tikotin Museum of Japanese Art. The management of Haifa Museums announced that the rest of the museums will open gradually during the month of June.
The Gutman Museum in Tel Aviv’s Neveh Tzedek announced its opening on June 4, with a new group exhibition of six female artists.
Smaller museums and private ones are still considering their options, and a few told us they are not sure if they will ever be able to overcome the effects of the shutdown on their financial situation.

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