Southwest museums struggle to regain visitors

The Bakken Museum
The Bakken Museum in West Maka Ska reopened to the public on June 20 after a major renovation. Photo by Isaiah Rustad

The Walker Art Center is quiet on a Friday save for the soft footsteps of visitors walking across the gallery and the slight whir of the air conditioning. On one side of the exhibit, a mother and child gaze up at a series of colorful portraits lining the back wall, their voices muffled through cloth masks. On the other side a visitor walks the length of a green leaf-like aluminum sculpture in the center of the room, a work by artist Ellsworth Kelly.

Since Southwest’s museums reopened in late June and July, some patrons have begun making reservations online and planning visits as ways to escape the heat.

Although attendance is now limited to a quarter of capacity, some museums are seeing even fewer guests ready to return. Since the Minneapolis Institute of Art reopened July 16, attendance is down to about 15% of normal, director Katie Crawford Luber said.

“Suddenly we’re trying to figure out how to be a museum without an audience,” Luber said. “Our mission really is about people and art — and bringing them together. And that’s a very challenging thing right now.”

Navigating the logistics of cleanliness, staffing and virtual programs, many have directed visitors to make online ticket reservations at specific times of day to control crowd numbers.

Mia added janitorial staff to clean the museum more often, installed no-touch faucets and toilets and set up round markers on the floor to encourage visitors to stay 6 feet apart. It’s also removed some interactive elements normally accompanying exhibits, like informational iPads and adjusted some exhibits designed for touch.

Now open Thursday through Sunday with limited hours — nearly half the time it was open before — reaching audiences digitally has grown in importance, Luber said.

Before the pandemic, a monthly in-person Mia family day could draw upward of 2,000 guests. Mia has spent the past few months developing ways for families to engage with art from the safety of their homes. For July’s family day event, based on the museum’s special exhibit “When Home Won’t Let You Stay: Art and Migration,” families could go online and find activities, videos, songs and poetry. Since April, the landing page for Mia’s family day events has seen about 4,600 unique visitors.

the Walker
St. Paul resident Amy Jo Felling brought her infant son, Harry, to the Walker on July 24. It was her first time at a museum since she went on maternity leave near the start of the pandemic. Photo by Becca Most

The Walker (which opened to non-members on July 16) has sought to reach audiences virtually though online tours led by curators and slideshows of different exhibits on display.

Like many other institutions, the museum has laid off workers and cut hours. While the Walker received over $1 million from the Paycheck Protection Program, it has lost about $5.7 million in revenue from ticket sales, memberships and events like Rock the Garden. A GoFundMe started to give cash support to 52 former Walker staff members has raised more than $11,000.

Smaller museums like the Bakken in the West Maka Ska neighborhood and the Museum of Russian Art in Windom have been able to avoid staff cuts and control more of the process because of the smaller staff needed in the space.

Mark Meister, executive director of the Museum of Russian Art, said fundraising efforts and a couple of loans and grants the museum received from the federal government helped it reopen. Attendance stands at about half of what it was last year — “pretty good” by pandemic standards, Meister said.

“During this COVID-19 period, people have come to realize how much they miss certain things [like] being able to come to the museum,” he said. “We think that it’s a really important intellectual and cultural break from all of the other things that we’re being buffeted with right now.”