Arts organizations will emerge from pandemic stronger—with help from friends
I’m grateful for this opportunity to write about the future of museums and cultural institutions in the age of COVID-19. Of course, I speak from my narrow perch as executive director of the Knoxville Museum of Art, but I’m in touch with colleagues around the country and consume everything I can about how the cultural sector is coping with the pandemic. I spend a lot of time thinking about how the KMA, a private not-for-profit organization dependent on broad community support and a diverse revenue stream, can successfully navigate a constantly shifting and increasingly unfamiliar landscape. Spoiler alert: I have not quite sorted things out.
Like everyone else you know, at the KMA we are groping our way through, with little certainty about what might happen tomorrow, much less in six weeks or a year. This is a moment when any organization needs to be secure about its values, and its value: we need to understand who we are and why what we do matters. The KMA, thankfully, was able to reopen on July 1, on a restricted basis, with lots of safety protocols, and we were overjoyed to welcome people back. We were also fortunate to be able to extend through late October a groundbreaking exhibition documenting the lifelong relationship between Knoxville native Beauford Delaney and writer and civil rights activist James Baldwin. Beauford Delaney and James Baldwin: Through the Unusual Door represents the best expression of the KMA’s commitment to the art and artists of East Tennessee, and resonates powerfully at this troubled and hopeful moment.
Even though the museum’s doors are open again, we’re expecting a tough year. At least one-fourth of the KMA’s annual revenue is based on gathering big groups of people, but the fundraising events and building rentals won’t be happening for a while. We can’t do much in the way of in-person programming for now, but have greatly increased our digital footprint to reach people via other channels. Our major donors have held steady, and hundreds of members have maintained or increased their giving, which is deeply gratifying.
I am optimistic for the arts organizations that have helped make Knoxville the vibrant city it is. I know Knoxville will hang in there with us, and we will emerge from the current situation smarter, more responsive, and better attuned to the needs of our audiences. When times are hard, you find out who your friends are, and the cultural sector in Knoxville has many, many friends.