Museums and Collections
Museums, Making Their Way
James Cuno, Ph.D. ’85, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust in Los Angeles, was at the Museum of Diego Rivera in Mexico City, in mid March, when he heard that California governor Gavin Newsom had shuttered all non-essential state businesses and ordered residents to stay home. The Getty’s doors have been closed ever since. After his initial “sudden shock,” Cuno began planning with colleagues how to take the museum online, logging into 9 a.m. daily Zoom meetings to review the latest updates and debate how the Getty should respond.
Reflecting on those initial days, Cuno recalls his time as director of the Harvard Art Museums—a post he held before similar stints at the Courtauld Institute in London and the Art Institute of Chicago. He was driving to work in September 2001 when a shocking announcement came through on the radio: planes had struck the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, killing thousands. He began to wonder how the tragedies in New York and Washington, D.C., might affect life in Cambridge. As a stream of security officers interrupted morning meetings at the museum, he resolved to continue with his ordinary routine, hoping that a sense of normalcy would bring his colleagues some comfort. But his plans soon began to shift: “What I realized was that ultimately even though people were safe, what everybody wanted to do was to go home.” The lesson of that experience, Cuno said, was to adapt to both the psychological challenges of a traumatic event and the logistical hurdles it posed. It also awakened him, and other museum professionals, to dimensions of their jobs extending far beyond the norms of curation, exhibitions, and the routine management and leadership of their institutions, large and small.
Cuno has returned to those ideas as he has mapped out the Getty’s path forward. He has helped plan responses for the four branches that comprise the arts institution: its museum, research center, conservation institute, and philanthropic arm. With would-be museum-goers sheltered in place and the Getty’s experts locked out of libraries and labs, Cuno has not attempted merely to mimic the normal experience of visiting and working at the museum, as some museum leaders have. Instead, he has sought offbeat ways to provide access to the Getty’s offerings, from podcasts to social-media challenges.
Cuno credits his time at the Harvard museums with teaching him to prioritize an institution’s core audience. At the University, he learned to center his outreach efforts on faculty and students in the history of art and architecture; similarly, in the pandemic, he has focused on keeping the Getty’s devoted supporters engaged. “You’re preoccupied with your audience that wants to enter the museum, that wants to visit the museum, that wants to learn about the sort of things that are in the museum,” he explained.
Alongside the normal trappings of an art museum’s website—images of paintings, biographies of artists—the Getty’s online offerings wouldn’t be out of place in an influencer’s Instagram account. In March, the Getty’s social-media accounts asked the museum’s fans to recreate some of its most iconic works from their homes. Thousands participated in the Getty Challenge, which the museum’s leaders modeled on a similar initiative debuted by the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and a social-media account called “Between Art and Quarantine.” Participants have created a socially distanced version of Grant Wood’s American Gothic by adding six feet of space, reproduced a Jeff Koons sculpture (Play-Doh) with a pile of socks, and channeled their quarantine frustrations into twenty-first-century versions of Edvard Munch’s The Scream.
Assessing these distinctly modern outreach efforts, Cuno casts his thoughts back to World War II. As German planes bombed London nightly, the National Gallery’s curators whisked the art out of London to protect it from damage. “But the people clamored for some access to art,” he emphasized, commenting that culture can provide comfort in crises. And so the great concert pianist Myra Hess, resolving not to leave the museum’s halls empty, organized a series of musical performances there, drawing Londoners back to the gallery nearly every day. “It was a sign that civilization had not been lost,” Cuno said. “That they were still going to survive.”
Drawing inspiration from that story, he has tried to reassure the Getty’s supporters that the arts will endure beyond the museum’s compound, too. After local activists and writers called for the Getty Trust, whose endowment was worth $7 billion last year, to help local arts groups stay afloat, Cuno announced a $10-million fund for smaller Los Angeles-area museums and galleries. “We knew early on that the local community of artists and art institutions were going to be hit terribly hard by COVID,” he said. “They didn’t have the resources to sustain themselves.”
Institutions like the Getty face a set of challenges distinct from those affecting university museums. Academic museums must collaborate with university administrators to determine the best path forward, according to Harvard Art Museums director Martha Tedeschi. Plus, she said, those Harvard museums have to coordinate with other museums on campus in their pandemic response, which can further reduce their flexibility. “In my conversations with our fellow museum directors here, at Harvard, and in Boston,” she said, “we feel the more we can announce things in tandem, the less confusing it is for our visitors.”
But Cuno’s instinct for finding creative ways to engage virtually with the museum’s collections is common among museum leaders everywhere, including Tedeschi. The Harvard Art Museums have adapted some of its in-person programming to the demands of the pandemic, she says, making “a significant part of our collection available in a more lively way” than a traditional online catalog. For instance, the staff recently launched a seminar series geared toward doctors working during the pandemic who had short breaks in their hospital shifts; she hoped that during the course of a 30-minute presentation about an artifact from the museum’s collection unrelated to medicine, they could be “refreshed by the dialogue with other human beings” and have space away from their harrowing routines.
Not all of the museum’s online programming has been geared toward medical workers, however. A recent Zoom seminar open to the general public that explored some of the museum’s objects drew roughly 600 attendees—far exceeding its normal, in-person cap of 15 without worrying that people would lose an up-close view of the object. “We realized that you can be intimate and yet be open to all,” Tedeschi said. “It’s something that will change us forever. I think as an institution, even once our doors will reopen, these kinds of virtual programs will not go away.”
When and how the Harvard museums doors will reopen remains unclear. The University’s decision to bring back only a minority of the undergraduate population, and to restrict access to non-residential Harvard buildings even for that on-campus cohort, means that College students will not visit the museums, in person, this fall. But at some point, Tedeschi and her staff plan to help faculty members and graduate students access museum objects. And she hopes that the museums’ conservators will eventually regain access to their labs (with strict social-distancing protocols in place). “It’s very disorienting to be away from your collection and away from your public,” she said. “Basically, everything we do is getting ready for that.”
Cuno, too, has shifted his attention toward planning for an eventual reopening. His team had initially hoped to open the Getty Villa, which houses the antiquities collection, in early August, and the rest of the complex roughly a month later. But the resurgence of COVID in southern California derailed those plans. In the meantime, Cuno and his team are creating routes that visitors will be able to take through the museum after the Getty reopens, trying to minimize density while maintaining access to exhibitions. And he is continuing to think about new ways for virtual visitors to engage with the museum’s offerings—a task he believes can provide a sense of comfort for remote visitors during the pandemic, just as the London concerts did during World War II. “It gives them a sense of emotional, cultural relief,” he said. “It gives them a sense of recognition that these things that they’re looking at have survived, stood the test of time, for centuries, and that we will survive, our civilization will survive.”