On a weekday afternoon at the Brooklyn Museum, Carolyn and Joel Jacobson ambled through the American art galleries, alone with George Bellows’s smirking “Newsboy” and a bronze bust of Abraham Lincoln.
The couple hadn’t left their Long Island home — aside from going to the grocery store — since the pandemic bore down on New York in March.
“This was a big day for me,” said Mr. Jacobson, 84, his voice echoing through the empty gallery.
A similar scene played out that day in the winding galleries of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan, where roughly 40 mask-wearing visitors meandered through the museum. An attendant said it was the busiest he had seen since the space opened on Oct. 3.
And at the American Museum of Natural History, a visitor from Florida, Cheyenne Grant, 21, observed the emptiness: “It’s just us and the dinosaurs.”
Over a month after most of New York’s most prestigious museums reopened to the public, they are experiencing an existential crisis, fueled by the state-mandated reduced capacity of 25 percent. While the public face of New York City museums welcomes back these visitors with a smile and the promise of a safe experience, administrators behind the scenes anxiously wonder how long they can feasibly stay at that meager occupancy without making significant cuts to staffing or programming.
That’s not to say visiting a New York museum is always a solitary activity.
Visiting during the pandemic can be like a choose-your-own adventure game. If you go on a weekday, the eerie emptiness can make you feel as if you’re sneaking in after hours. But on a weekend at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, you may have to stand in line outside just to get your temperature checked. And if you’re aiming to snap an up-close picture of “The Starry Night,” you’ll likely have to wait in a line of people around two — not six — feet apart.
Some arts advocates have been encouraging politicians to allow museums to elevate their numbers, but there are no signs that the state plans to ease that restriction any time soon.
At the Met — where about 91,500 people visited in September, compared with 381,500 during the same month last year — the museum’s pandemic team is assuming that the 25 percent capacity restriction will persist into the spring. (Another scenario administrators are gaming out imagines a year with that restriction.)
Daniel H. Weiss, the Met’s chief executive, said that if the 25 percent capacity extends past June, the museum will have to consider another round of money-saving measures like trimming staff pay or programming. The Met, which relies on ticket sales and other purchases from visitors for roughly a third of its annual revenue, has already had two rounds of employee cuts, leaving the museum with a staff that is about 20 percent smaller than it was before the pandemic.
That financial anxiety doesn’t mean the Met is pushing the state government to allow it to fill its galleries to capacity. Mr. Weiss said safety is the priority.
“We want to be open, but we don’t want to push the envelope,” he said, “especially as, throughout the country, we’re seeing that the pandemic is on the rise precisely through the lack of adherence to social-distancing rules.”
Like many other institutions, the New-York Historical Society has also resigned itself to the fact that it will be taking in a fraction of the revenue it did last year; as a result, most employees saw pay cuts and the museum canceled or postponed 11 exhibitions. Louise Mirrer, the museum’s chief executive, said that income through ticket sales and other items like gift-shop purchases makes up roughly 35 percent of the museum’s annual revenue — a point of pride for her that is now an Achilles heel for the institution during a time of limited capacity.
Other leaders in the museum world are more intent on convincing the state to ease up on its capacity restrictions.
At a round table with state legislators on Wednesday, Erika Sanger, the executive director of the Museum Association of New York, painted a dire economic picture for museums here unless the 25 percent capacity restriction is increased as soon as possible. The organization estimated that museums in New York State lost $3.5 million a day in April, Ms. Sanger said. While that figure has surely dropped since the reopenings, she added that she knows of at least 12 museums that are discussing dissolution or mergers.
The amount of time that a museum will be able to survive at a 25 percent capacity depends on several factors, including the size of its endowment and cash reserves, as well as how much government funding it has received and will continue to bring in, despite the pressures of the pandemic, Ms. Sanger said.
That is the question that keeps museum directors up at night: Will limited capacity persist so long it causes financial disaster?
At the Guggenheim, Richard Armstrong, its director, had previously estimated that his institution would be capped at 800 people a day, a number that he told staff in August would allow the institution to “begin to break even” financially. Eventually, the museum revised its capacity to about 600 visitors. Since opening its doors in early October, the number of daily visitors has averaged about 540.
During September, the Met pulled in about 24 percent of the number of visitors as in the previous year, while the Museum of Modern Art saw about 14 percent of the visitorship of September 2018 (the museum was closed last September).
Even if museums were able to start rolling back restrictions on visitors, not all areas of New York City are in a position to do so. With the Queens Museum only steps away from the neighborhoods seeing Covid-19 clusters, the museum is facing the possibility of temporarily closing its doors again.
Sally Tallant, the museum’s director, said that because ticket revenue for this fiscal year is hard to estimate, she removed the item entirely from the budget.
“I’ve accepted that this period of uncertainty will continue,” she said.
Amid the upheaval, museum employees remain in fear of losing their jobs considering many of New York’s institutions have each laid off dozens of workers.
The front-facing staffers are expected to ensure that visitors are keeping their masks on and staying six feet apart from one another. As a result, some museum workers are lobbying their institutions and public officials for hazard pay.
While some essential workers did receive hazard pay in the form of lump-sum bonuses and wage multipliers during the pandemic’s early months, that hazard pay was available for a short amount of time. Despite current demands, union representatives for museum employees are not putting hazard pay on the bargaining table now. Robert Wilson, a representative for Local 30 of the International Union of Operating Engineers — which represents art handlers and maintenance staff at MoMA and the Guggenheim — said that these museums are already in tough financial situations.
“For us to say, during this difficult time, that we want more than we would normally ask for, when the museum is struggling, is a difficult thing to accomplish,” he said.
Museum advocates have framed their industry as being one of the most adaptable to the challenges of the pandemic, highlighting some institutions’ vast gallery spaces and attendants who are already trained to make sure people keep a distance from the art. In one of the most extreme adaptations, the Shed in Hudson Yards, a flexible-space venue that won a dispensation to open recently to show art, transformed its space so that visitors entered through what had previously been the fire exits, so they didn’t have to use the escalator or elevator.
“We can guarantee six feet of separation for every minute of the experience,” said Alex Poots, the Shed’s artistic director. (The Shed can host 60 visitors at any onetime in its gallery space under the state’s rules.)
Most of the people walking through museums’ doors are now largely New Yorkers, according to administrators. At the Whitney, nearly 90 percent of September’s roughly 30,000 visitors were New Yorkers, compared with a little more than one third in 2019. Its chief executive now refers to the Met — once a popular destination for international tourists — as a “local museum” during the pandemic.
Leaving an exhibition of paintings by Jacob Lawrence at the Met last week, Jan Greenberg, 77, who lives in the Hudson Valley, saw an upside to the empty galleries.
“I have trouble going to museums when they are really crowded, so this is like a gift,” she said. “I’m sad for the museum — but I’m happy for me.”