The Met is reopening: Grab your timed ticket and view Jacob Lawrence
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The Met is reopening: Grab your timed ticket and view Jacob Lawrence
An employee measures the space between works in Jacob Lawrence’s rarely seen series of paintings, “Struggle: From the History of the American People” (1954-56), at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Aug. 24, 2020. With fewer people and more protocols, the country’s largest museum is ready to welcome visitors again. Vincent Tullo/The New York Times.

by Robin Pogrebin

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- An Italian Renaissance study will be closed to visitors because it is too small to allow for social distancing.

Timed tickets will be scanned by hand-held devices in the Great Hall.

And, for the first time, there will be valet parking for bicycles, since many people are avoiding mass transit.

It is tempting to hope that all will be business as usual when the Metropolitan Museum of Art finally swings open its Fifth Avenue doors to the general public on Saturday, after five months of closure because of the coronavirus outbreak.

But because the pandemic continues to convulse the globe, the country’s largest museum will, in many ways, reopen as a very different Met.

Perhaps most notably, the museum will now mainly be a New York institution, given the pandemic’s ongoing travel restrictions. Whereas 70% of the Met’s 7 million annual visitors were typically tourists, now the museum expects those moving through its galleries to be largely local residents.

Like all New York museums that are reopening, the Met also has to play by the state’s rules, namely 25% occupancy, timed ticketing and masks. (The Met is selling its own based on its collection, including Monet’s “Water Lilies” and Van Gogh’s “Bouquet of Flowers in a Vase”). The museum will also require visitors to have their temperature taken before entry.

In the past, the museum could expect on a busy day more than 5,000 visitors per hour — especially with tour buses arriving early in the morning. Now the museum will limit the crowd to an hourly rate of 2,000 and reduce its hours, closing Tuesdays and Wednesdays. School groups are not yet permitted.

The Met has been eager to reopen, not only for its own recovery — having projected a $150 million loss — but for the larger cultural life of New York City.

“The Met plays a very important role within New York — it’s such a strong signal for getting back to a certain level of normalcy and getting back to life,” said Max Hollein, who became the Met’s director just two years ago. “In that sense, it’s a signature institution. It has that kind of responsibility, but it also has that ability to carry a city forward.”

Other museums will be reopening this week, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of the City of New York, and more have announced their opening dates — like the Whitney (Sept. 3), the Bronx Museum of the Arts (Sept. 9), the Brooklyn Museum, El Museo del Barrio (Sept. 12) and the Guggenheim (Oct. 3). The Met Cloisters will reopen on Sept. 12.

These New York museums have been learning from other institutions, including the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the first to reopen in the U.S. in May; and those in Europe, which have been back in operation since the spring.

To the extent that the Met is the largest of its peers, the museum is at a distinct advantage — 2 million square feet of floor space to allow for social distancing. Smaller New York institutions must reopen in more circumscribed ways. The Tenement Museum will have a phased reopening beginning Sept. 12, and the Drawing Center will reopen by appointment only starting Oct. 7.

To be ready once Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo gave museums the green light to open — which he finally did on Aug. 14 — the Met has been preparing in minute detail, training its visitor services staff on how to interact with patrons and making sure its ticket systems are operational.

Will Sullivan, the head of visitor experience, who has worked at the Met for more than 25 years, said he was part of a task force of New York museums that have been working together on how to reopen safely and effectively.

“We are now at the point of taking months and months of work,” Sullivan said, “and bringing it to life.”

Some galleries may dictate circulation patterns, and a few cramped spaces, like the intimate wood-inlay study, may be closed. Otherwise, just about every part of the Met will be accessible when the museum reopens — first to members on Thursday and Friday, then the general public on Saturday.

“Our goal was really that you have the Met experience,” Hollein said, “meaning that you don’t just have one wing open, but you see this great institution in all its different aspects, and it’s a museum that you know and that you love.”

The Met will test out a free bike valet service, organized with Transportation Alternatives, the bicycle and pedestrian advocacy group. “People can come leave their bikes for as long as they want,” said Danny Harris, the group’s executive director. “When they come back, their bike will be waiting for them to get wherever they need to go.”

The bikes — each of which will be sanitized — will be parked on the plaza, just north of the main steps.

“This is one more way to make the museum accessible to visitors,” said Kenneth Weine, the Met’s vice president of external affairs and an avid biker, who thought up the idea. “We know New Yorkers are eager to visit, and that many more are biking.”

To be sure, there are reasons to be nervous. Will people come? Will they submit to temperature checks, wear masks and observe distancing guidelines? Will the virus eventually surge again in New York City, possibly forcing the museum to shut down once more?

These are the questions that have been keeping Sullivan up at night. “I worry — did we get all the details right?” he said. “Did I miss something? Am I forgetting something?”

But there have also been purely joyful aspects of the process, Met staff members said, such as opening the exhibition of Jacob Lawrence’s rarely seen series of paintings, “Struggle: From the History of the American People” (1954-56), which highlights the experiences of women and people of color.

“We’re trying to do right by him,” said Randall Griffey, a curator of the show, speaking of the artist, who died in 2000. “The Met has been very vocal about commitments to Black representation and equity, and we’re very lucky to reopen with something like this — it’s almost regrettably timely.”

The Met will finally be able to do a number of things: showcase its 150th anniversary show, “Making the Met, 1870-2020,” which focuses on the institution’s history; open its rooftop garden exhibition of Héctor Zamora; and unveil its costume exhibit, “About Time: Fashion and Duration,” which was supposed to happen in May — along with its annual gala — but will now open in October.

While the Met’s Gerhard Richter show at the Breuer building will not reopen — the Frick has taken over the space — four paintings from the artist’s important “Birkenau” series will be on view in the main building starting in September.

In anticipation of its reopening, the Met has dedicated, for the first time, the facade spaces usually used for exhibition banners to display art: two new banners that Yoko Ono created in response to the pandemic featuring the words “Dream” and “Together.”

Rebekah Laskin, a Brooklyn-based jewelry artist, said she was looking forward to reuniting with a museum she has missed. “The Met is a touchstone for me — it always has been,” she said. “It’s a place I go for refuge, inspiration and delight.”

Despite all the careful planning, there are bound to be kinks; the Met — like museums everywhere — is in uncharted territory. “I think about hurricanes, blizzards, 9/11, blackouts — all sorts of big New York City events that took place and having to get the doors open or closed and take care of the staff,” Sullivan said.

“But I never could have pictured something like this,” he added. “We’re opening the doors to a completely different world.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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