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Pandemic Has Many Small Museums At Risk Of Closing Permanently


The pandemic has devastated the art sector, and hundreds of small museums are trying to keep from having to close forever. Here's NPR's Nina Kravinsky.

NINA KRAVINSKY, BYLINE: One of the largest collections of paintings from Harlem Renaissance artist Palmer C. Hayden is on the third floor of a Macy's in LA's Crenshaw district.

KEASHA DUMAS HEATH: We are a pretty small museum, a micro museum, a hyper local and community-based museum.

KRAVINSKY: That's Keasha Dumas Heath, the director of the African American Art Museum that's tucked away on the top floor of the department store. Their doors have been closed for over a year, even though the Macy's has been open for most of that time because it's classified as retail under LA's reopening plan, but the museum is an entertainment space, so that means no gift shop sales, no events and no visitors wandering up and leaving a donation while they're there. In a usual year, that money fuels a lot of their programming.

DUMAS HEATH: And we don't run very well on empty.

KRAVINSKY: This past year, they've had to rely on grants and donations to keep from closing their doors for good. And they're not alone. The latest survey of more than 850 museum directors from the American Alliance for Museums found about a third said they were at risk of closing permanently. Laura Lott leads the alliance.

LAURA LOTT: Museums exist to protect our cultural heritage and the things that we as a society have decided are important. Unlike a restaurant or a shop, which we would also hate to lose but would, when economic times return, you know, probably come back in some form, once a museum closes, it's closed forever, generally.

KRAVINSKY: The National Marian Anderson Museum in Philadelphia is another that's been closed for over a year. The museum is dedicated to the Black performer best known for singing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial after being barred from D.C.'s DAR Constitution Hall because of her race in 1939. The museum is in her former home, and it also runs a scholarship program for Black vocalists, a program that they're now CEO Jillian Patricia Pirtle benefited from herself.

JILLIAN PATRICIA PIRTLE: It has been very devastating. We do not get the type of endowment funding that large corporate museums get. So we rely very heavily on our day-to-day tour groups, in-person visitors. And the fact that we haven't had that and we've had to solely rely on their virtual attendance has been crippling.

KRAVINSKY: A recent basement flood caused tens of thousands of dollars of damage to the house. And like the African American Art Museum in LA, they haven't benefited much from federal relief programs aimed at helping small businesses.

PIRTLE: I'm really hoping that things change for the better in a positive manner with getting help and distribution of it evenly and equally for cultural institutions that don't fit their cookie cutter mold.

KRAVINSKY: In LA, Dumas Heath and her small staff are making preparations now that the city is allowing spaces like museums to reopen at a limited capacity. But there's a lot to do still to get the space back up and running, like floor decals to direct traffic and acrylic barriers between gift shop cashiers and guests. And she worries about another COVID surge that would force them to close their doors again.

DUMAS HEATH: It does not feel like we're quite out of the woods yet.

KRAVINSKY: But Dumas Heath is hopeful, hopeful that it won't be too long until visitors can experience her museum again in person, whether they're longtime patrons or folks who just happen to be at the Macy's that day. Nina Kravinsky, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLEEPY FISH'S "SMALL THINGS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.