Philadelphia Museum of Art announces September reopening

A couple in protective masks walk past the Philadelphia Museum of Art in Philadelphia, Friday, April 3, 2020. (Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

A couple in protective masks walk past the Philadelphia Museum of Art in Philadelphia, Friday, April 3, 2020. (Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

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The Philadelphia Museum of Art plans to reopen its doors to the public on September 6, almost six months after it closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Museum leaders say they also will open to members on September 3 through 5. The Rodin Museum, the small sculptural museum and garden managed by the PMA opposite the Ben Franklin Parkway, will also reopen on the same schedule.

The PMA is the last major cultural institution along or near the Parkway to announce an opening date. The museum of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, on North Broad Street, announced on July 1 it will reopen on September 12.

Like most museums, the PMA will reopen with a roster of safety precautions to avoid spreading COVID-19: timed ticketing, enforced 6-foot social distancing between parties, reduced hours, and a reduced number of visitors. They will limit visitors to 50% of capacity, which translates into between 1,500 and 1,700 per day. 

Only the north entrance will be open, just off Kelly Drive, where visitors will have their body temperatures scanned upon entry. The restaurant and café will remain closed. The gift shop will allow a limited number of people inside.

During the shutdown, the museum has not been idle. Construction of a major interior expansion, designed by architect Frank Gehry, has been ongoing, which digs into the footprint of the iconic building to carve out more than 20,000 additional square feet of exhibition space and restore a long-unused underground entrance tunnel.

The construction was originally scheduled to be completed by the fall of 2020. It has been pushed to early 2021.

Also during the museum shutdown, the staff was reduced by furloughs and layoffs. Some furloughed staff will come back to work for the reopening.

During the shutdown, about 200 staff members drove a successful campaign to form a labor union, one of the largest single bargaining units at any American museum.

The union has been very vocal on safety protocols and job security during the pandemic. Employees voted in the union last week. Union leaders are currently in a 7-day cooling-off period before starting talks with management, so the unit has not yet engaged management over its reopening plan. Union members had some positive things to say about the plan, but want more information.

Nicole Cook, a museum program manager and union organizer, is excited to have people back inside the museum. However, Cook’s excitement comes with some trepidation about the museum’s ability to make assessments about employee safety on an ongoing basis, and make adjustments if necessary after reopening.

“I’ve heard very encouraging and positive things about the reopening task force and the plan they formulated,” she said. “That said, I think the people who are greeting visitors and working in the galleries – the frontline staff – they are going to know the soonest what is working and what needs to be rethought.”

One of the museum’s frontline staff members, Noah Thompson, is a visitor services assistant. Thompson sells tickets and works the information desk, among other duties. He said he will be reporting to the museum a week before opening for training, which he hopes will include steps to deal with people who are unhappy – even belligerent – about mandatory face masks and other safety protocols.

“This is a whole new level of problems that will be addressed, and we need to be sure we have the correct language and everyone knows the procedures in place,” he said.

Director of visitor operation, Jessica Sharpe, says the staff will be trained to deal with visitors who don’t follow the rules.

 “We’ve identified scenarios and protocols for those scenarios – conflict resolution for frontline staff, and some role-playing to identify the best course of how to navigate a conversation that’s difficult. Our staff is very professional,” she said.

Temporary exhibitions that had been up when the museum closed have been extended, including a show of work by Horace Pippin (up through December), a show of contemporary art from South Asia (up until Oct 25), a show of work by the Italian sculptor Marisa Merz (until next summer), and highlights from the H. Richard Dietrich collection of Americana (until November 15).

Shortly after reopening, on September 16, the museum will open “The Art of Care,” an exhibition developed and curated in response to the pandemic that shut down the museum. The exhibition will feature art and photography related to the emergency medical workers, informal mutual aid networks, and the history of nursing.

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