It took Chicago artist Myron Laban six months to create his new collection, “Sitting With My Thoughts,” a collection he says is some of the best art he’s ever made. But when it came time to showcase his work this November, there wasn’t the usual fanfare that comes with celebrating that hard work.
“Normally, when you have an art show, it’s kind of like a social gathering—a bunch of people come during the opening day, you get to see all your friends,” Laban says. “But this time it was like: If you want to see the art, you’ve got to make the appointment.”
Yet, his collection at Elephant Room Gallery almost sold out. The South Loop gallery, which features mainly new and emerging local artists, got inventive. It allowed private viewings for families at its small storefront location and moved all other activity online. It was a change that owner Kimberly Leja Atwood says helped them pivot when the pandemic first hit.
“We sort of just knew the change was happening and if we didn’t change our business model with it, then we weren’t going to survive,” she says. “So we just adapted.”
Chicago museums and galleries have faced tough decisions about how to operate since COVID-19 caused the area’s first mandated closing in March 2020. Then, in November, statewide restrictions put in place by Gov. J.B. Pritzker caused a second closing for those that had just recently reopened in the fall; some had not reopened at all.
But, for Leja Atwood, her early pivot to a model that would work throughout most of the uncertainty was key to the Elephant Room’s survival. Because of the small size of her gallery, she has not yet reopened fully and has continued to operate on an appointment-only basis.
“It definitely has been smoother than we thought,” Leja Atwood says. “There was a short period of time, when it first started, where I had to make changes to make sure we could still stay afloat. But now, I feel like we’ve gotten into this groove of this. This is just like a new normal, a new way of handling business.”
Leja Atwood says part of that new normal extends to her customers’ needs. With everyone spending more time at home, she explains, it’s also an opportunity to connect with her audience, widen it, and help them think about how art can help them really transform their homes into “sanctuaries.” She says she’s significantly more active on social media than she was before to connect with them in this way.
“It forced me to really push our artists more online, update the website, do better with that, stay on top of social media,” she says. “So, even though [Elephant Room] is not physically open to the public, enough people are making viewing appointments and also just checking out the work online, which is reaching a wider audience.”
But not all organizations have been able to be as nimble. An October survey by the American Alliance of Museums shows that nationwide, nearly one-third of museums felt they were either at significant risk of closing permanently or just simply didn’t know if they could survive the pandemic; more than half had to furlough or lay off staff—a sobering fact that also extends to some of Chicago’s largest and most popular museums.
“I think we’ve seen, especially for larger institutions across the region, layoffs have been pretty common this year,” says Charity Counts, executive director of the Association of Midwest Museums.
Counts says large museums are actually in a unique bind: They have a specific revenue model that relies on keeping the doors open to sell tickets but also are too large to be eligible for certain PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) funding and other forms of coronavirus relief. In addition to ticket revenue, they often rely on memberships.
“Because members tend to see the value of their membership in the number of times they get to visit, being closed has an impact on how members will think about the value that you’re getting,” she says. “So I think museums have spent a lot of time trying to maintain opportunities for their members, even if they can’t be onsite, in order to keep the membership and keep that revenue coming in.”
The Museum of Science and Industry is reopening on March 7 with a new “Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes” exhibit that features Marvel artifacts such as some of its most iconic costumes, props, and original art. Adding value to its membership, the museum is giving members exclusive first access from March 4-6.
As museums work to keep value in memberships, another unforeseen loss in revenue is the inability to rent out museum and gallery spaces for large private events.
“Every museum that I spoke with in the region has experienced revenue loss across a variety of areas, especially when it comes to event revenue, because there are a lot of museums, that you could imagine, are great places for hosting weddings and other events and they just haven’t been able to do that,” Counts says.
The Museum of Contemporary Art was among the museums that had to close a second time. The multiple closings over the past year caused a significant impact on operations, deputy director Lisa Key says in an e-mail.
“Due to the rise in COVID infection rates and the rollback of reopening tiers by both the city and state, the MCA closed for a second time in November, and again like all cultural institutions, have had to regroup and make difficult decisions because of our closure,” she says.
MCA plans to open to the public on March 2 after closing in November, but in the meantime, has created a new digital exhibition that is a response to recent social justice events. With art from more than 70 local artists, “The Long Dream” is named after the 1958 Richard Wright novel and includes painting, performance, sculpture, video, and sound art that imagines a more equitable world. Virtual programming is accompanied by curriculum and learning resources, and visitors are guided through a video tour with renowned senior curator Naomi Beckwith. (Beckwith has recently been named the new deputy director and chief curator at Guggenheim Museum in New York City, starting in June.)
In addition, Key says the museum has prioritized its support for Chicago-based vendors and artists by promoting their merchandise in its retail store, which is available online.
The Art Institute of Chicago is reopening February 11 and says it is also refocusing its efforts on home. With people cutting down on travel, the institute’s recent visitors are primarily from the Chicago area, executive director of public affairs Kati Murphy says in an e-mail.
“We are excited that, with reduced capacity and incredible exhibitions, the people benefiting most are from our community,” she says.
Even with the recent closure stopping in-person visits to its two new popular exhibits, “Monet and Chicago” and “Bisa Butler: Portraits,” the institute has created virtual and member-only events to keep visitors engaged. That ingenuity and variety in programming can be attributed to staff’s ability to adapt, Murphy says.
“Our staff has demonstrated incredible resilience and flexibility during an incredibly difficult time and we are looking forward with a great deal of optimism,” she says.
As museums and galleries continue to open, their spaciousness and ability to control the flow of visitors generally categorize them as lower risk activities. Reopened museums are still often way below their minimum threshold of allowed visitors, the Association of Midwest Museums’s Counts says, but it’s important to remind the public that these cultural institutions can be a form of needed respite from the confines of their home.
“These museums have taken every, every effort and really invested in educating their staff and their volunteers, and everybody is just trying to get open,” she says. “And it’s probably going to be one of the more relaxing locations to go, in terms of getting away, getting a change of scenery from your home or wherever you’re spending your time, and where your family and your pod would feel like they could have an experience, and think about and talk about something new.”
Although the past year brought unprecedented challenges for cultural institutions, museum and gallery leadership remain optimistic about the future of their organizations. For Elephant Room Gallery owner Kimberly Leja Atwood, the uncertainty that comes along with COVID-19 might have pushed her into a new digital realm, but it also encouraged her to stay there. Currently, the Elephant Room is selling limited edition prints of Laban’s work so that she can also appeal to audiences at different price points.
Even when restrictions are lifted and it becomes safe to gather in crowds, Leja Atwood plans to still focus on expanding her physical presence online.
“Everything we’ve been doing is going to continue,” she says. “I feel like that, in combination with eventually being able to reopen, we’re just going to continue to grow.” v