hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues November 2020


Keeping culture alive

As pandemic limits visitors, museums work to stay connected


After the Covid-19 crisis forced it to close its building from mid-March until July, the Bennington Museum is now operating on a restricted basis. Photo by Joan K. Lentini


After the Covid-19 crisis forced it to close its building from mid-March until July, the Bennington Museum is now operating on a restricted basis. Photo by Joan K. Lentini


Contributing writer


When Covid-19 began to spread into the region in early March, museums were in their slow season, with their staffs focused on preparing for the year’s major exhibitions and the usual wave of summer tourists.

But as the coronavirus triggered state shutdown orders over the next couple of weeks, museums of all kinds abruptly went dark across the Berkshires, Vermont and eastern New York. Most were able to offer only online programming as the public health emergency stretched from weeks into months.

As restrictions eased this summer, museums began reopening on a limited basis. But the blockbuster shows that attract major sponsors and crowds were canceled or postponed until next year.

“The lack of admissions, and lost revenues from the canceled events, bus tours and school groups, was staggering,” said Alexina Jones, the director of advancement at the Bennington Museum.

Because of the pandemic, she said, her museum is projecting a 90 percent drop in earned revenue this year.

The Covid-19 crisis has devastated the region’s cultural economy, as many performing arts venues remained shuttered throughout the summer and fall or offered outdoor shows only. Marquee events like Tanglewood and most of the summer theater festivals were either canceled or offered only online programming.

Museums, which in theory can function without gathering a crowd, have been able to reopen to the public, but only on a restricted basis. Many are admitting visitors only by advance reservation, at specified times, to keep the number of indoor patrons within health guidelines. And because the coronavirus is known to spread more easily indoors, many older and at-risk people may not yet feel comfortable visiting museums.

In interviews last month, officials at a sampling of five museums around the region said they were finding ways to stay engaged with their patrons and communities. All were confident they would weather the crisis, though several have had to reduce staffing or salaries to cope with sharply reduced revenue.

But some fear the coronavirus could pose an existential threat to smaller museums.
In July, the American Alliance of Museums warned that perhaps one-third of museums across the United States were at risk of running out of funds and closing permanently because of the pandemic. The alliance reported that, in a survey of 750 of its member institutions in early summer, most museums had fewer than 12 months of operating reserves. More than half reported their cash reserves couldn’t sustain them for more than six months.

Two-thirds of directors said they’d have to cut their budgets by slashing education, programs or other services to the public. Museums that planned to reopen said they would do so with reduced staff and would need extra money to ensure they could reopen safely. Despite the challenges, 75 percent of the museums continued to offer virtual education programs and other resources during this spring’s shutdowns, the survey found.


In Bennington, developing digitally
The Bennington Museum showcases the art, history and innovative traditions of southwestern Vermont. It also has the world’s largest public collection of paintings by Grandma Moses, who lived just across the state line in New York.

In mid-March, the museum’s new executive director, Joshua Campbell Torrance, was only six weeks into his position. The museum had upgraded its computer system in December so that all staff had access to a laptop.

Jones, the museum’s director of advancement, said Torrance “had barely gotten his feet under him” when the museum was forced to shut down on March 13.

“Even so, we were able to move quickly and decisively to close the building, let the public know, and make sure staff could continue to be connected remotely,” Jones said in an e-mail interview.
The museum building remained closed until July 3. Its staff moved quickly to online programming, including short museum tour videos, virtual conversations with artists, longer videos for younger viewers, and Zoom lectures for adults, Jones said. The digital content helped the museum stay connected with the community and perhaps reach more people, she said.
“Digital programming is definitely an initiative the museum will continue to improve and expand upon in the future,” she said.

The museum’s outdoor sculpture courtyard and 10-acre campus remained open to the public. As warmer weather arrived, the museum hosted a variety of outdoor events, including a portion of the popular North Bennington Outdoor Sculpture Show, and it brought in food vendors and live music.

The museum benefitted from a loan through the federal Paycheck Protection Program that helped support its entire staff throughout the lockdown period, Jones said. But after the loan funds ran out, the museum cut its staffing levels, which remain below what they were before the pandemic.

The museum now is only partly open, with occupancy limits and reduced days and hours. The research library and the popular Grandma Moses Schoolhouse remain off limits to visitors.
Torrance, the new executive director, resigned in September, citing a need to be closer to his family and his wife’s job. The museum’s board named one of its members, David Pilachowski, as interim executive director.

“Right now, the museum has the resources to hold steady through the pandemic with the help of a great board who is committed to the future of this organization,” Jones said. “We have some exciting programming planned for the coming year, and we are hoping to secure grants to fund some of these initiatives that will really bring our mission home. We just ask our community to continue to provide advice, encouragement, and of course, support, for those who are able. Success is reciprocal, and by working together we can all thrive.”


‘Micro-weddings’ help Hildene
Hildene, the Lincoln family home in Manchester, also had a new leader, Brian Keefe, as of January. Robert Todd Lincoln’s 1905 mansion is the big draw, but the 412-acre estate includes a 1903 Pullman railroad car, a working goat dairy, heritage livestock, and many acres of conserved open and agricultural land.

When the pandemic hit, the house was open daily, and its staff was preparing for school visits and summer camps, said Paula Maynard, Hildene’s press and group tours director. Hildene closed March 17 and began a slow reopening around Memorial Day, she said in an e-mail interview.

“We had to lay off staff briefly, but everyone came back once we received PPP funds,” Maynard wrote. Hildene also received additional federal coronavirus emergency funding that was disbursed by the state of Vermont.

Hildene’s summer camps, which usually serve about 3,500 children, were canceled and replaced by Camp in a Box, a program that included materials and instructions for home-based natural science activities as well as passes to Hildene’s grounds. A similar program was offered in the fall.

The staff increased its digital outreach, such as a digital tour of the mansion’s renowned peony garden. With its elegant grounds and impressive views, Hildene is popular for summer weddings and other gatherings. The big events were canceled, but the staff found a market for “micro-weddings,” which will carry over into 2021.

Produce and flowers from the estate’s gardens, usually purchased by event caterers, were donated to local charities. With fewer visitors on the grounds, the facilities crew took on a number of maintenance and improvement projects.

But income from admissions is down by about 60 percent, and Hildene expects earned income will be less than half of the $1.6 million originally projected for 2020, Maynard said.

Thanks in part to fund-raising efforts, “we are currently experiencing an uptick in new donors, which we greatly appreciate in these uncertain times,” she wrote. “Hildene will continue in its mission through this pandemic. We are constantly improving and expect 2021 to be one of the busiest and most exciting of our 42-year history managing this 1905 estate.”

Berkshire’s online pivot
In Pittsfield, Mass., the Berkshire Museum, which highlights the region’s art, science, and natural history, closed on March 14 for what was expected to be a two-week shutdown. Its doors didn’t open again until Aug. 1.

“We had to lay people off in the first few weeks,” Executive Director Jeff Rodgers said.
Because no visitors could be inside the building under the state’s emergency rules, the museum furloughed its security and facilities team. The “front of the house” staff – marketing, admissions, educators and program developers -- did what Rodgers called a “quick pivot” and plunged into creating online audio and video content, learning as they went along.
“They did a fantastic job,” he said.

The staff produced digital versions of existing programs for early learners and school field trips, Rodgers said. They created an entirely new digital summer camp (which continues as an after-school program) as well as blogs and podcasts. They instituted live programming, such as conversations with regional theater professionals and family museum trivia nights.
“It’s based on the museum’s objects, but you don’t have to be a museum expert to do well,” Rodgers said.

The “Art of the Hills Narrative,” with works by 64 Berkshire artists, opened virtually on June 6 as a 3-D tour. It opened to the public on Oct. 10 and will remain up until Jan. 20.

Berkshire Museum has been reopening gradually, following state and federal guidelines and regulations. As of early November, the museum is open five days a week, with public access to the basement-level aquarium, first-floor galleries, and the “Art of the Hills” exhibit on the second floor. Timed, advance tickets are required.

Groups of up to six visitors are allowed in every half hour and follow a designated path through the museum, Rodgers said. Reservations usually fill up.

“We could push more through, but we’re erring on the side of caution,” Rodgers said. “People can go through the museum and not see another pod. It’s a very exclusive and safe experience.”
The response to the museum’s digital offerings “has been really great,” with more than 30,000 people having viewed or participated in online content, Rodgers said. Discussions and virtual exhibition openings drew about 100 people each, he said.

The “Art of the Hills” virtual tour has proved to be a strong driver of in-person visits, Rodgers said.

“People enjoy both, but there’s no replacing the live experience of art,” he said.
The museum received a PPP loan, which “enabled us to bring back the facilities team,” Rodgers said. Because there are still so few in-person visitors, the security team was not recalled, he added.

The board of directors imposed a hiring freeze, leaving open all vacant positions. A small loan and grant from Massachusetts’ share of this spring’s federal coronavirus relief funding “kept the lights on, doors open, and the staff working,” he said.

Planned structural upgrades and restoration of Wally the Stegosaurus, the museum’s front entrance mascot, went on as scheduled.


Helped by art sales?
The Berkshire Museum because the focus of controversy in 2017 when it announced it would sell up to 40 works from its collection, including a much-loved Norman Rockwell masterpiece, to replenish its endowment, boost its science and natural history divisions, and to fund a building renovation.

At the time, critics called the art sales a violation of the public trust. The Association of Art Museum Directors sanctioned the Berkshire Museum, saying the art sales violated its ethical code, under which proceeds from the sale of artwork should be used only to pay for the acquisition of new works.

This year, however, the museum directors association loosened its restrictions on the selling of artwork to support museums’ operating and capital needs, citing the pandemic’s financial impact.
Rodgers, who took over at the Berkshire Museum last year, said its staff still wrestles with the issue of the 2017-18 art sales.

“Had the museum not taken those steps, it’s doubtful the museum would be in a survival situation now,” Rodgers said. “As many as one-third of the museums in the U.S. may not survive this. We are not in that situation.”

Since the pandemic began, the Berkshire Museum’s revenues are down by as much as 30 percent, Rodgers said. The museum is coping with that loss through the hiring freeze and what he called significant cuts to operations.

Although the museum would like more visitors, it will continue to restrict their numbers as necessary to meet public health guidelines, Rodgers said.

“We would love to see another round of federal stimulus,” he added. “That would allow us to undo some of the cuts.”

Museums “help us regain some sense of normalcy,” Rodgers said. “We’ll continue to adapt and see where it takes us. A year from now, hopefully we’ll be back to normal, and we can start building back to where we started.”


Rockwell’s tour buses vanish
Although the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge received a PPP loan, its board decided to lay off 12 of its full- and part-time employees permanently. It also furloughed all of its frontline staff during the shutdown, though they were invited to return in preparation for the museum’s July 12 reopening, leaving a payroll of just under 50, The Berkshire Eagle reported at the time.
Alyssa Struble, the museum’s communications manager, said the summer’s big show, “Enchanted: a History of Fantasy Illustration,” was postponed until 2021, in part because lending institutions were closed and crews couldn’t be dispatched to collect the artwork. But the museum was able to open nine new shows on site and a number of virtual offerings.

As a research center for the works of Norman Rockwell and other historic and contemporary illustrators, “we had thousands and thousands of hours of online content” for the museum’s website, Struble said.

In the tradition of images that inspire patriotic action, the museum commissioned six current illustrators to design posters encouraging people to vote.

The museum now is open at 25 percent capacity. Tickets are timed and must be reserved in advance.

“We’re basically selling out every single day,” Struble said.
But a sellout in fall of 2020 isn’t what it was in 2019.

In a normal year, “we could get 12 or 13 busloads a day during leaf-peeping season,” Struble said. “Now visitors have the galleries to themselves. It’s an intimate experience.”

Struble declined to discuss specifics of the museum’s financial situation but stressed that “we’re not going anywhere.”

“We’re here for the long haul,” Struble said. “We’re encouraging engagement. We want to be a safe community space. It’s really encouraging that everyone has been so helpful.”


Like other museums around the region, The Hyde Collection in Glens Falls, N.Y., was closed to the public for more than four months because of the Covid-19 crisis. It is now open Fridays through Sundays, but visitors must reserve time-specific tickets in advance. New online programming helps it reach more people. Joan K. Lentini photo


Like other museums around the region, The Hyde Collection in Glens Falls, N.Y., was closed to the public for more than four months because of the Covid-19 crisis. It is now open Fridays through Sundays, but visitors must reserve time-specific tickets in advance. New online programming helps it reach more people. Joan K. Lentini photo


Virtual video from The Hyde
The Hyde Collection in Glens Falls, N.Y., is considered relatively small among fine art museums, but its collection attracted visitors from 37 states and 13 foreign countries last year, said Norman Dascher, its chief executive.

The museum was created in the 1950s by Charlotte Pruyn Hyde to preserve the personal art collection she had amassed with her husband, Louis. It has since grown to include a significant group of modern and contemporary works, and it hosts changing exhibits and educational programs throughout the year.

“We closed on March 20 and were closed for five months,” reopening Aug. 1, Dascher said. The board decided against layoffs, instead keeping everyone on the payroll at half time until the museum secured a PPP loan.

“When that ran out in August, everyone was reduced by 20 percent,” he said.
When the museum shut down, its staff shifted to creating virtual content for the museum’s website and social media platforms.

“Digital is a new skill we had to learn,” Dascher said. “The staff has become their own video producers.”

Three online art programs for children proved so popular over the summer that the museum has continued them as after-school programs.

“Parents are very appreciative,” Dascher said.
New adult programs include a book club on Zoom and online exhibitions.
“We hope to reach a bigger audience,” Dascher said. “We’re certainly casting a wider net.”
The museum is now open Friday through Sunday, with the first two hours each day reserved for people over 65 and those at higher risk of infection. The museum shuts down for an hour of cleaning, and then the general public has four hours in the galleries. Tickets must be reserved and are time-specific. Patrons follow a designated route through the buildings to prevent crowding, Dascher said.

Before the pandemic, the museum saw about 20,000 visitors per year. About half of its operating budget of $2 million per year came from donors, sponsors and memberships, according to a video on the Hyde’s website.

This year, with its two big fund-raising events canceled, no big shows to attract corporate sponsors, and admissions severely limited, the Hyde expects a deficit of $500,000.
An appeal for funds on the museum’s website “has been very helpful,” Dascher said.
“People are trying to help as many organizations as they can,” he said. “We’re looking for more help to close that gap. Our grant writer is feverishly filling out grant requests and looking for new grants. Our board is really wonderful. We have a great staff. They’re committed that Mrs. Hyde’s legacy will continue. I’m confident that will happen.”

According to the American Alliance of Museums, museums employ about 726,000 people across the United States while providing important cultural and educational services to their communities. In an Oct. 6 post, Laura Lott, the alliance’s president, called for museums to be included in any new federal coronavirus relief package. Without more federal assistance, many museums will have to cut operations or close permanently, which “will have ripple effects throughout communities,” she warned.