Crowd Out

Embrace reduced visitor capacities as a temporary reality for art museums

As New York City resumes its bustle after months marred by the pandemic-induced stay-at-home order, it’s no longer wishful thinking to imagine wandering some of New York’s world-renowned museums in the not-so-distant future. But prepare for many of the city’s premier art museums to welcome far fewer guests. 

Though it was perfectly OK to lament the worldwide closure of museums during the pandemic, as New York’s museums begin reopening with limited capacity, let us not mourn the crowds. 

In a typical year, a combined 10 million people visit The Met, MoMA and Guggenheim. That’s about the population of Sweden, shuffling through queues, coagulating corridors, pausing to post bad pictures to their individual social media accounts.

Reduced capacity at New York’s museums means a lot less of all that. Patrons will soon find out whether a museum with fewer people constitutes a more pleasant museum experience. 

MoMA has alluded to allowing as few as 1,000 visitors at a time upon reopening, down from the roughly 7,000 guests it usually hosts on average each day.

If the Guggenheim’s Bilbao, Spain, location provides any hint at what’s to come for its Upper East Side-based progenitor, 50 percent visitor capacity will become a new, if perhaps temporary norm. 

It’s true that reduced museum capacity translates to unrealized income for museums, which means layoffs and furloughs for nonessential staff, many of whom are likely to struggle financially. (Which undoubtedly sucks, even if it’s only for a short time.)

But perhaps the reduced capacity and dearth of suffocating crowds will help otherwise reluctant museum-goers justify the $25 price of admission to museums like MoMA and The Met

Reduced capacities healthily inflate the underlying value of the admission ticket price. Fewer tickets issued each day functionally render relatively crowd-free New York museum experiences more exclusive. For a brief moment in the scheme of cosmic time, the scale of value exchange will soon briefly lean away from the moneyed museums and toward their patrons. 

For the lucky people fortunate enough to gain museum entry under these new crowd capacity constraints, wouldn’t wandering a Met free of hordes also reorient the value proposition of each ticket?

$25 spent on strolling silent halls of art among a fraction of the previous crowd size feels like a better deal than forking $25 to shuffle through a museum packed with tourists and people on bad dates. 

I’m certainly eager for a return to the bygone days of sipping burnt MoMA espresso from a paper cup while a docent mean-mugs me from across the hall. It’s just that doing so in a comparatively empty museum seems like the kind of privilege we might remember fondly once the crowds resume their meandering shuffle through New York’s most hallowed galleries. 

While The Met tentatively plans to reopen sometime in August 2020, and the Guggenheim and MoMA currently have no firm reopening dates, when the museums resume in-person visits with limited crowd capacities, visitors can likely expect some novel social distancing precautions in addition to limiting crowd capacity. For a potential preview, look to Magazzino Italian Art museum in New York’s Hudson Valley, which plans to provide each guest with a necklace that vibrates whenever people come within around six feet or so. 

Embrace the vibrating necklaces and other momentary distractions from appreciating a gallery’s art as anodyne tradeoffs for the constricting crowds that previously characterized visits to New York’s renowned museums. 

Reduced museum visitor capacities could emerge among the happier byproducts of the waking nightmare COVID-19 has wrought on manifold aspects of life in New York City. As the city’s preeminent art institutions awaken from months of quarantine, let’s take some consolation that visiting art in the age of social distancing will allow us to experience it up closer.

Image Credit: Hermann Traub / Pixabay 

About the author

Al Jacobs is a writer and designer when he’s either writing or designing. At all other times he doesn’t know what he is, but he bets you two would probably get along OK. He’s @AlJacobs on Twitter.

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