If any place is tailor-made for social distancing, it's the spacious CMOA Heinz Galleries, throughout which hang blown-up copies of Lê's many photos. But right now, I don't mind being alone, as it gives me room to truly savor each breathtaking silver gelatin or inkjet print.
It was, for the most part, the same experience I had when walking through the Mattress Factory campus the previous week. As I entered each floor of the museum's giant main building, I was met with empty galleries through which I could browse and dawdle as much as I pleased.
This was a short time after the museum officially reopened on Aug. 12, and, as Mattress Factory interim executive director, Hayley Haldeman, points out, the mostly solo viewing isn't exclusive to just me.
“Oftentimes, when people come into the museum, they might be the only person on their floor for the entire duration of their experience,” she says, adding how this is due to a staggered ticketing where only 15 visitors are permitted in the Mattress Factory each half hour.
While this is antithetical to the pre-coronavirus mission of bringing in as many visitors as possible, she believes the new system actually has its benefits.
“In a unique way, I actually feel like it is perhaps more enjoyable to walk through the museums right now,” she says, adding how drastically different the vibe is from 2019, when the Mattress Factory had what she claims was the busiest year in the museum's history. “It's just really hard to experience the art the way that the artists want you to when you have 40 or 50 other people on the same floor.”
As a result, she says visitor feedback shows appreciation for an environment that is now “quieter and potentially more meditative.” “I think you actually do get to really absorb and experience the exhibitions in a way that we hope certainly is more meaningful,” Haldeman adds.
How long this new-found serenity will last is still unknown. As museums and galleries in Pittsburgh and beyond are slowly welcoming back eager, albeit limited crowds, the question remains whether or not cultural institutions used to presenting not only exhibitions, but a wide variety of interactive educational workshops, galas, and live performances, will ever return to pre-coronavirus normalcy.
And while the current states of things might be pleasant for visitors who value solitary and intimate experiences, it restricts possibilities for places that thrive on finding creative, new ways to connect communities with artists and their work.
Now, instead of planning receptions for exciting new exhibitions or artist talks, museums are focused on ensuring visitors and staff are wearing face masks at all times and social distancing, and that everything is substantially cleaned and sanitized.
This includes CMOA, where I noticed staff walking around with spray bottles, wiping down couches, door handles, and glass cases. Since CMOA reopened on June 29, Eric Crosby, the Henry J. Heinz II director of the Carnegie Museum of Art, says they have “instituted updated health and safety measures” at the museum. This is evident in the many touchscreen displays being shut down to decrease the number of so-called high touch-points. (All of them now read, “Visitor health and safety is our top priority. Please refrain from touching for the time being.”)
The changes are especially noticeable next door at the more child-friendly Carnegie Museum of Natural History, where hands-on areas like the Bone Hunter's Quarry are temporarily closed to families and young visitors, with arrows on the floor directing them through the various exhibits. There are also numerous hand sanitizing stations and signage gently reminding everyone to wear their masks and stay at least six-feet apart.
“Our team has worked diligently to create an environment that is safe and welcoming,” says Crosby. “We want each person visiting the museum to feel comfortable and confident that they will have a positive, meaningful experience.”
Programming that would have been in-person has been moved online, and to compensate for the months of lost time, On Contested Terrain and another exhibition, Counterpressures, have been extended.
Crosby says they will also debut new exhibitions, including Trevor Paglen: Opposite Geometries, on view from Sept. 4-March 14, 2021, and Locally Sourced: Contemporary Pittsburgh, a show “spotlighting local Pittsburgh artists, designers and makers” set to open on Nov. 20. He adds that while they looked forward to bringing back crowds, they were cautious about reopening after closing on March 14. While he feels confident that the museum has executed proper safety protocols based on recommendations by the Center for Disease Control, the work is not done.
Haldeman says planning their reopening started back in April, when the Mattress Factory joined forces with 30 museums and cultural institutions throughout the region, including Fayette and Westmoreland counties, as well as Fallingwater. Over time, the collaborative hosted regular virtual meetings to trade information about their responses to the pandemic and stay updated on national, state, and local health agency information. They also developed sub-teams to explore and address specific issues related to staff and volunteers, visitors, facilities, communications and advocacy, and more.
Even with months of preparation, Haldeman says staff continues to monitor their spaces and spot areas in need of improvement.
“We're still tweaking and seeing how visitors are experiencing the space,” she says. “Some things are short term fixes, others are longer term.”
For now, she believes keeping attendance hovering between 15-25% — the standard at museums in Pittsburgh and nationwide — is the way to go.
“We, frankly, were really pleased with starting out slow, and that was by design,” she says, adding how the approach provides “breathing room” for staff and visitors to adjust and feel more comfortable and confident. “We could always scale up.”
The show paired six Pittsburgh-based artists with partners from Creative Citizen Studios, which helps artists with intellectual and developmental disabilities make, exhibit, and sell their work.
Nicole Czapinski, project manager at CDCP, says the fellowship project started in March and was quickly affected by the pandemic, as what was originally supposed to be in-person turned into partners meeting over Zoom, mailing each other back and forth, and working outside to allow for social distancing.
“It just created a different kind of opportunity for artists to respond to in a creative way,” says Czapinski. Beyond receptions, however, smaller galleries and artist-run spaces already operate at a limited capacity with appointment-only schedules. Even that approach, it seems, has been expanded — walking into the Project Space, I was immediately greeted by a masked gallery attendant who asked if I had signed up for a time slot.
Czapinski believes that, like them, many smaller arts and cultural spaces are adopting time slots, which could actually benefit them. “It kind of holds people accountable, in a way, because it's more official and you're signed up for a specific time, whereas at an art opening, it's like, 'Maybe I'll see you there.' This is ticketed.”
She adds that the pandemic has also pushed them to do more programming right outside their doors. This includes a sidewalk sale they hosted in late June with several local businesses, including Meshwork Press and the bowtie studio, Knotzland.
Visitors are also still welcome to shop for artist-made goods at Small Mall, another CDCP creation located within the Project Space and in Lawrenceville.
Czapinski says time slots will be the norm for now, but within that system, they're trying to find ways to enhance the visitor experience. This might include allowing ticket-holders to create their own music playlists that would play at the gallery as they view the exhibition.
CDCP also transitioned many of its regular in-person events to virtual, such as Tiny Talks, where artists present their work and interact with the community. Czapinski says they are also planning to host a virtual version of their SIX x ATE roving dinner lecture series, during which participants will have food delivered to their homes.
While the present seems tentatively bright, Haldeman believes that the most challenging period for museums, galleries, and other cultural institutions was not the last six months but “the next 18 to 24 months to come.” Right now, she and her staff foresee not making any “hard and fast decisions” and instead are focused on staying flexible should new problems arise.
“We're trying to stay as strong as we can right now,” she says.