For any art lover, regular visits to museums are a necessity and a joy. Working for a New York institution myself, I’m inside a museum about as frequently as someone should be reapplying sunscreen to their face—often. Of course, with mass temporary shutdowns across the United States due to the worldwide spread of coronavirus, these museum visits have dried up. With physical doors closed, museum goers were compelled to enjoy curated collections and public programming digitally. That is, until state shutdown regulations slowly began lifting.
Having serendipitously timed a visit home to attend a party for one of my family members just days before New York began announcing the first tentative closures and work from home orders, I decided to stick out with family in Houston rather than return to New York. Unlike New York, Houston’s temporary stay at home orders began a little late in the game and have already begun to lift. While some early openings, including hair salons and bars, felt a bit unsettling personally, when the Museum of Fine Arts Houston announced a members opening on May 20 and public opening on May 23, I was curious to see how an institution might embark on the difficult task of reopening to the public safely, and what this could mean for museums across the country. With the benefit of large expanses of space, if managed properly, museums could be one of the first safe indoor leisure spaces to open to the public. So I decided it was time to don my mask and gloves for one of my first physical art-viewing experiences in months.
Before heading to the museum, I checked out their website where I learned advanced online tickets were strongly encouraged, yet not required. Depending on availability, you have the hour of entry of your choice. Before purchasing a ticket, there’s an unavoidable link asking one to “See new visiting protocols, including requirements for face masks and social distancing.”(A very reassuring message in a city and state where a large part of the population would rather not wear a mask.)
Upon arriving at the museum, there are signs outside welcoming you that lay out the ordinances similarly seen on the website. These include the requirement to wear a face mask, to submit to a temperature check, and maintain social distancing. The institution also will only accept credit cards, and not allow large bags or food or beverages. The temperature check is quick and very civilized, I was expecting a sweaty TSA moment but was pleasantly surprised with a swift and effective encounter. Information desks were protected with plexiglass and the only hand-outs offered were maps printed on legal paper, although the same map is easily accessible on your phone through their website. Elevators are reserved for priority, and decals on the ground outline a six-foot-distanced que.
The Museum of Fine Arts Houston is an interweaving of arguably massive structures. The large, airy entrance is met with alluring, bright gallery spaces. These surroundings allow for a superb social distancing experience. If social distancing practices were rated among the likes of fine dining, the MFAH would be considered Michelin starred. Navigating through the galleries, visitors are met with quirky signs depicting an Amedeo Modigliani oil portrait donning a blue face mask—these stand as friendly reminders to keep a six-foot distance as well. Crowding seemed to be a non-issue, and the museum did not seem more, nor less packed than any previous visits in memory (with the exception of 2016’s bustling Kusama show).
For someone who’s been hesitant to begin frequenting public spaces as guidelines are lifted, I at no point felt vulnerable, in fact, it felt a bit empowering to be back in such a distinguished setting after being away many months. The front-of-museum staff and security guards are friendly, and as cheesy as it may sound, you can tell they are smiling behind their masks. There seemed to be a sort of mutual consideration among museum patrons by wearing masks and respecting each other’s space. We were all in this together, and we were all grateful to be enjoying a nice day in the presence of art—something we might’ve taken for granted in the past. Recognizing the horrible tragedies of COVID-19 and that there’s still much time before many institutions and businesses will be able to open their doors, experiencing this new normal firsthand left me with an immense amount of hope. Hopeful for Houston, hopeful for New York, and hopeful that if we unite following certain protocols and precautions, the world will be able to enjoy viewing art in a museum again sometime soon.