Two months ago, the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco faced a big decision. Museums around the world were shutting their doors in response to the coronavirus, and already the CJM was losing revenue as corporate events in its rental spaces were being canceled.
Then the announcement came: The museum would close indefinitely starting on March 13.
“It does feel very surreal,” Kerry King, chief operating officer at the CJM, said of these 2½ months of being closed. “Like many other things right now.”
Now the CJM, UC Berkeley’s Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life and other museums face an uncertain future as the pandemic has set into motion a host of problems, from financial difficulties to the challenges of putting their exhibits and collections online.
The CJM anticipates making $1.5 million less than expected for this fiscal year, citing event rental cancellations and loss of ticket sales as major reasons, according to Sarah Bailey Hogarty, the museum’s director of marketing and communications.
According to the museum’s most recent public filings, the CJM brought in $9.2 million in revenue during 2017.
The museum is now projecting a year-end deficit, she said.
Many of the museum’s exhibits are now either online or postponed.
The day before the CJM closed, it had opened “Predicting the Past: Zohar Studios, The Lost Years,” an exhibit featuring the work of L.A.-based photographer Stephen Berkman. Bailey Hogarty said the museum is planning to soon launch a virtual exhibit for those photographs.
Meanwhile, “Levi Strauss: A History of American Style,” which opened Feb. 13, is currently online and will be available throughout the summer. Its closing date is still listed as Aug. 9.
“Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything,” the first exhibit entirely devoted to the influential singer-songwriter, has been postponed from its original Sept. 17 opening date, Hogarty said.
“We are working closely with all our current and future exhibition partners, including the originators of the Leonard Cohen exhibition, to plan for various scenarios upon the museum’s reopening,” Hogarty said.
Senior curator Heidi Rabben says she sees both pros and cons to having the CJM’s content be virtual.
“We’re able to experiment with new platforms and tools to reach many more diverse communities online than we can ever do in person,” Rabben said. For example, all of the CJM’s virtual tours are free compared to the usual ticket prices of $16 for adults.
But Rabben steadfastly believes in the power of seeing art up close and unmediated by electronic screens.
“The experience of art online will never equate to experiencing art in person,” she said. “I would not want a world where museums are only virtual, and do not foresee that. The most successful virtual experiences that I’ve witnessed during this time are not those that seek to replicate an in-person experience, but those that allow virtual space and its unique tools and platforms to inform the new content they produce.”
As of right now, the CJM does not have a reopening date.
On May 13, Gov. Gavin Newsom gave 17 counties guidance for reopening their economies, but indoor museums are, for now, to remain closed.
CJM officials said they have been able to avoid large-scale furloughs and layoffs, which isn’t the case at other museums; SFMOMA, for example, let go of more than 300 staff members in late March.
Bailey Hogarty said the CJM did lay off 35 on-call, temporary staff members, but they will be eligible for rehiring when the museum reopens. She added that the CJM is paying some employees who are usually on-site (but not currently working) through the federal CARES Act and the Paycheck Protection Program.
It likely will take “some time,” Bailey Hogarty said, before corporate partners are ready to rent out the museum’s spaces again, which could profoundly affect revenue forecasts. For the time being, school tours, lectures and other events will remain virtual, she added.
“The CJM is anticipating a long road to becoming fully operational again,” Bailey Hogarty said.
The experience of art online will never equate to experiencing art in person.
Meanwhile, the Magnes, a unit of UC Berkeley, relies on individual donations and foundation grants to cover its operational costs. Raising that money, interim faculty director Benjamin Brinner said, may be tough going forward.
“We live on funds that we raise,” Brinner said, “and this [pandemic] has made it harder to raise money. And if it goes on for a long time, that will be an ongoing challenge.” The museum isn’t too worried about existing donors, but finding new ones could be difficult, he added.
“The whole pace of fundraising is slower,” Brinner said.
According to the most recent public filings, the Magnes received grants worth $267,010 in 2017.
As of May 15, no layoffs at UC Berkeley and, by extension, the Magnes, have occurred since Chancellor Carol Christ announced in early April that the university would commit to keeping employees paid through June.
Another positive note for the Magnes is that its existing model has worked well during the pandemic. Curator Francesco Spagnolo said that because the Magnes already had been extensively digitizing its collections, its transition to virtual viewing has been a smooth one. (The museum’s past exhibitions can be viewed here. And even more than that is available here.)
“So, from that point of view, it’s almost business as usual,” Spagnolo said.
Spagnolo said exhibitions that were up and running, and which were supposed to end this spring, will be extended into the fall. The museum did have to call off its opening of the exhibit on Polish-Jewish political cartoonist Arthur Szyk, postponing it until the fall.
Both Spagnolo and Brinner said that although the Magnes has been able to expand its online offerings during the pandemic, in the end, they want people to come back in person.
“I would really hope that we can get back to the excitement of [exhibition] openings,” Brinner said. “You know, people coming and viewing the exhibition, seeing old friends, exchanging impressions and so on. It’s much, much harder, if not impossible, to do that online.”
Brinner said that he hopes to reopen the museum within six months to a year, but realizes it may be longer than that. It’s also dependent on whether UC Berkeley decides to bring students to its campus for the fall semester, or have the classes (scheduled to begin Aug. 26) be entirely online.