SANTA FE MUSEUMS WEATHER COVID
AND DISCOVER UNEXPECTED SILVER LININGS
BY ADELE OLIVEIRA PHOTOS BY KITTY LEAKEN
Santa Fe New Mexican
Santa Fe is a museum town — just ask any visitor what’s at the top of their itinerary. Locals, too, are invested in our city’s cultural institutions, through membership, attendance at exhibition openings and participation in special programming — such as lectures at the New Mexico History Museum and hands-on crafts events at the Museum of International Folk Art. When the pandemic hit the United States in winter 2020, the impact on museums around the country was both immediate and significant. In Santa Fe, as elsewhere, all museums closed, and many remained shuttered on and (largely) off for the remainder of 2020 and into 2021. Connect spoke to the directors of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, New Mexico History Museum, Museum of Contemporary Native Art (MoCNA) and the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian about the challenges, lessons and unanticipated benefits of the past two years. EXPANDED VIRTUAL AND DIGITAL CAPACITY “Like all museums, we’re predicated on sharing objects and information with people,” said Jennifer Foley, deputy director of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. “We had to find new ways of connecting with visitors and communities.” An overhaul of online resources and programming was critical to museums during the pandemic and led to a variety of improvements. At the O’Keeffe, the revamped online “Mornings with O’Keeffe” tours drew virtual visitors from around the country and the globe. The New Mexico History Museum conducted online tours for students and residents throughout New Mexico, while the Wheelwright made similar offerings for students in Santa Fe and Los Alamos public schools. The Wheelwright received a grant from Google Arts & Culture, designed to help with increased online visibility, and began to digitize its extensive archive, the vast majority of which was previously available only through in-person viewing. At MoCNA, staff also built a digital archive of past exhibits. In the past, “when we curated a show, if it didn’t travel and if there wasn’t a catalog, when it was over, it just left,” said Patsy Phillips (Cherokee), director of MoCNA. “Now, all exhibitions can be visited in perpetuity online.” The New Mexico History Museum saw its social media platforms grow by more than 80,000 followers over the past two years, according to Billy Garrett, executive director. The Palace of the Governors Photo Archives account on Instagram (@pogphotoarchives) is one beautiful, educational example, posting one image per day from the archive’s estimated one million. The museum also invested in a “more robust” digital assets management system, making it easier for users to secure things like publishing rights for images. Garrett noted additional improvements to the museum’s monthly lecture series — every lecture is now recorded, broadcast and rebroadcast as a matter of course, instead of spottily, as was common in pre-pandemic days. Hybrid programming is likely to continue, with in-person events and live online broadcasts. Letitia Chambers, who served as guest curator for MoCNA’s groundbreaking Clearly Indigenous exhibition, noted that online programs also enhance accessibility for people with limited mobility. A SAFE SPACE COVID-related closures affected different museums differently. Although funding remained stable for state museums during the pandemic, they were closed by the governor’s mandate for much longer than many private institutions. In contrast, the privately funded Wheelwright reopened in August 2020 and has mostly remained open since. When reopening, museum directors proudly touted the safety of their spaces, citing size, capacity and measures like masking as advantages and tools to keep visitors safe. The O’Keeffe, a physically small museum, found that timed ticketing helped with crowd control and provided a better visitor experience overall — so much so that it’s going to stick with timed ticketing even as the pandemic wanes. At the history museum, Garrett said, “We tried to get the message out that this is a safe space to go — lots of room, easy to self-distance and we required masks.” “I always say we’re safer than Home Depot,” quipped MoCNA’s Phillips. In late February, Foley said that the O’Keeffe will continue to require masks for visitors. “We’re letting our front-facing staff lead the way,” she said. Chambers said that at MIAC, museumgoers adapted easily to masking and distancing requirements from the start. NEW SOURCES OF FUNDING The financial impact of the pandemic on museums has also been mixed. MoCNA receives federal funds and a variety of undirected grants — from the Ford Foundation, Mackenzie Scott (ex-wife of Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos) and other sources — and is in “the best financial shape we’ve ever been in,” said Phillips. Thanks to grant funds, MoCNA recently filled three positions: it hired an assistant curator and a full time security guard, and a previously part-time membership assistance position became full-time. Other museums saw significant drops in revenue during 2020. Foley explained that the O’Keeffe draws a greater percentage of revenue (about a third) from visitors at the door than many other museums. Revenue at the history museum (all of which goes to the state) was down about $355,000 in 2020, according to Garrett, but 2021’s revenue was up 16 percent compared to 2019. At MIAC, the opening of Clearly Indigenous, which features glasswork by Native artists, was delayed for months due to a lack of funding. Chambers, who curated the show, said that a grant and private funds covered the gap. The privately funded Wheelwright saw its membership grow 28 percent over the past two years, according to director Jean Higgins. The museum’s endowment also grew by $1 million over the same time period, thanks in part to donations. Higgins credits being mostly open since August 2020 as the main reason the museum survived. “As soon as people were able to travel, they came to Santa Fe, which was kind of open,” she said, speculating that the pandemic led people to reevaluate what was important to them. “We found people are more willing to travel for things like art,” she said. Higgins also noted that federal monies made available to cultural institutions at the beginning of the pandemic were crucial to museums’ survival. Early in the pandemic, many museums reduced their staff to skeleton crews, letting go many positions, in particular in-person visitor services and gallery roles. Now the tide has shifted. There are dozens of open jobs at both state and privately run museums in Santa Fe. Currently, there are 14 vacancies at the history museum, all of which, Garrett says, are on track to be filled by summer; a variety of open positions at the Wheelwright (fiscal officer, collections manager, security); and positions in visitor services, education and security at the O’Keeffe. COMING BACK TOGETHER All four museum directors are eager to resume in-person programming, tentatively in late spring or early summer. They hope to capitalize on the lessons of the pandemic, among them the importance of efficiency, teamwork, adaptability and increased accessibility, while getting back to hosting visitors regularly in-person as well as virtually. “Museums are the intersection of objects, ideas and people; it’s why we’re here,” said Foley. “Art is activated by having people look at it, engage with it, think about it. Without visitors, museums are just storage facilities.” Writer Adele Oliveira grew up in Santa Fe and lives in the city with her family.