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Cleveland Museum Of Art Director On Reopening, Social Turmoil

Visitors will see changes prompted by the pandemic starting at the front door [David C. Barnett / ideastream]
A museum sign marks the entrance of the glass-walled Breuer building

Entertainment venues ranging from zoos to movie theaters got the okay to reopen as early as this week from Gov. Mike Dewine, but many are taking a little longer to prepare their pandemic safety measures. For instance, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is reopening this weekend while the Cleveland Museum of Natural History is waiting until July.  The Cleveland Museum of Art opens June 3 0. In an interview with ideastream, director William Griswold said visitors will see the changes, starting at the front door.

“Upon entry, our visitors’ temperatures will be scanned,” Griswold said. “It's a very noninvasive process. We're asking that everybody, visitors as well as staff, wear a mask and we're going to make those available to our visitors who may have forgotten theirs or, for whatever reason, don't bring one.”

Griswold added that staff will continuously clean surfaces throughout the museum. Initially, a visit to the museum will be a low-touch experience, for example, discouraging people who don't need them from using the elevators. Hand sanitizer will be widely available and there won't be any programs or performances through December. Those experiences will move online, for the time being.

“But, having said that, the visit to the museum will be a wonderful experience,” Griswold said. “And it will give people an opportunity to experience the collection in a very intimate way. We'll initially limit the number of people in the building to just 500, but we'll ramp that up slowly. That's far, far below what we have calculated our capacity to be, even with appropriate social distancing.”

With visitors returning to the museum, Griswold said the museum is able to reverse some staff reductions brought about by pandemic belt-tightening.

“We've already started to bring back many of the staff who were who were furloughed,” he said. “And managing to the protocols that we have established will require that we make some additional hires. We’ll need additional cleaners, for example. It's premature for me to say much more than that, because I can tell you that next year is going to be tough from a financial perspective, given the fact that we'll be reopening to such reduced capacity. But, you know, we're managing through this as best we can.”

During the three months that the museum has been closed, a national conversation has erupted about police-community relations, specifically, and race relations in general. Griswold said it’s prompted a dialog within the museum about the need to respond.

“We've issued a statement with respect to the death of George Floyd, condemning racism,” he said. “But we also know that actions speak much more loudly than words. And so, I've begun a series of conversations with museum staff.”

Those conversations have been filled with anger and frustration.

“Some of what's said isn't easy to hear, but they've also been really rich and informative,” Griswold said. “And so, while these are early days, I think that you will see the Cleveland Museum of Art responding to the very particular circumstances in which we find ourselves today.”

He predicts that both new exhibits and new programming will be developed in response to the national moment.

“Our mission is to create transformative experiences through art for the benefit of all the people forever,” he said. “And that aligns us very much with the direction in which we'd like to see the country going toward diversification of perspectives and engaging in real conversation.”

David C. Barnett was a senior arts & culture reporter for Ideastream Public Media. He retired in October 2022.