How NJ Museums Displayed Covid-Era Creativity

As the pandemic raged, arts institutions found new ways to reach audiences.

nj museums covid-19

To engage with the public during the pandemic, the Morris Museum staged jazz and classical concerts on its parking deck. Courtesy of Jack Grassa

While no industry was spared from the impact of Covid-19, the arts took an especially significant blow. In fact, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, nonprofit creatives comprised the hardest-hit sector in the country. 

In New Jersey, the creative economy historically generates $23 billion in annual revenue, or 3.9 percent of the gross state product. In 2020, the sector lost $3.9 billion in revenue, and more than 73,640 creative workers lost their jobs.

Forced to pivot, arts institutions found innovative ways to engage their audiences. Over the past 17 months, this has meant virtual events, classes, concerts, networking forums and more, all of which could be enjoyed from the comfort of home. Museums around the state have been particularly creative.

“The challenge was how to stay relevant and continue to reach the community,” says Ira Wagner, executive director of the Montclair Art Museum. “Covid had a significant impact on our in-person classes and visits,” says Wagner, who started with MAM as interim director in May 2020, when the pandemic was well underway. According to Wagner, MAM’s summer camp—a major source of revenue—went virtual last year. This summer, it is sold out, but at reduced capacity due to remaining social-distancing requirements. That means less revenue. 

[RELATED: Jersey Hospitals on Lessons Learned During First Wave of Covid-19]

MAM galleries won’t be open to the public until September 12, when new exhibitions will debut. (The member exhibition preview will be held on September 11.) Pieces will include “Color Riot!,” an exhibition of historic and contemporary Navajo weavings, and “Transformed,” a showcase of works mostly from MAM’s permanent collection, highlighting the role of objects as reimagined by American and Native American artists. Also on view will be “By Our Own Hand,” an exhibition of work by veterans in collaboration with Frontline Arts, a Branchburg-based nonprofit. 

At the Morris Museum, president and CEO Cleveland Johnson says federal support helped the institution weather the Covid-19 storm. The museum implemented staff furloughs and considerable belt tightening, but, says Johnson, things could have been much worse. “Now, we just need the public to show up,” says Johnson. “We’re here for them.”

The public appears to be ready. Last summer, audiences attended the museum’s outdoor season of jazz and classical concerts; this summer, the museum revived the concept with 40 concerts scheduled. As for the fall? “After a wildly successful exhibit of graffiti by New Jersey artists two years ago, entitled ‘Aerosol,’ we will open ‘On and Off the Streets: Urban Art New Jersey’ on September 10,” says Johnson. “On and Off” will be on through the winter months; like “Aerosol,” the exhibit will invite artists to create new work “directly on our gallery walls,” explains Johnson.

While both museums are looking forward to expanding in-person engagement, some programs will remain virtual. At MAM, this includes MAM Conversations, the museum’s monthly visits with artists in their studios; and virtual tours for groups that find it difficult to come to the museum in person. There may also be a small number of virtual art classes.

As we all embrace a new normal, it is comforting to know that the arts will continue to be there, boosting our economy and making our communities healthier and stronger. 

Read more Steve Adubato: Only in NJ articles.

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