As Orange County inches closer toward Tier Two, or the “red” tier of coronavirus prevalence outlined by Gov. Gavin Newsom’s “Blueprint for a Safer Economy,” local museums and galleries are anticipating reopening after a long and painful period of forced closure. According to the blueprint, museums would be able to reopen at 25% capacity in Tier Two.

The COVID-19 shutdown has been devastating for museums in Southern California and nationwide, with one out of every three facing closure permanently as funding sources and financial reserves run dry, according to a survey conducted in June by the American Alliance of Museums.

Museums and galleries across the country have had to lay off and furlough staff, including those in Orange County. California museums have been losing over $22 million a day due to the statewide quarantine, according to the California Association of Museums. Since mid-March, California museums have lost more than $3.3 billion in revenue.

Yet, as indoor malls like South Coast Plaza and hair and nail salons are allowed to open under Tier One, or the “purple” tier, many in the museum world wonder why they haven’t been able to welcome in visitors as well.

Museums typically have excellent ventilation and air-conditioning systems to keep artworks pristine, and they can control attendance through timed, pre-purchased tickets, reservations and signage for social distancing. They can also easily track temperatures of patrons at entrances and enforce mask wearing.

“I don’t know of another institution more prepared to open than the Bowers,” said Peter C. Keller, president and CEO of the Bowers Museum since 1991. “We’re good to go. There’s nothing safer than a museum. By definition, you’re not supposed to touch things that are in museums.”

The Dorothy and Donald Kennedy Wing of the Bowers Museum, taken from the edge of Main Street in Santa Ana. Credit: Photo courtesy of the Bowers Museum/Paul Kennedy

Back in March, the Bowers opened a blockbuster exhibition with wide appeal, “Inside the Walt Disney Archives: 50 Years of Preserving the Magic.” A festive opening gala essentially sold out, and attendance for the first two weeks was robust.

Then the coronavirus shutdown occurred, and except for a brief reopening at the end of June through the beginning of July, the doors shut and the losses started mounting.

Keller said the Bowers – Orange County’s largest museum – has been losing about a quarter million dollars a month since the pandemic forced its closure. The Santa Ana museum did receive a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan to the tune of $610,000, which has helped significantly.

“That allowed us to keep our (full-time) staff,” Keller said. “It would have been horrendous to lay off people and to rebuild that team, which is very talented.”

Some part-time, non-essential staff were let go, such as security and visitor services, Keller said. But full-timers took 20% to 30% pay cuts, and the Bowers was able to draw on financial reserves that are not part of its endowment. Plus, it stopped matching 401(k) contributions.

But museum personnel aren’t the only ones who have been losing. Museums have a $6.55 billion financial impact on the state’s economy, according to the California Association of Museums. They support 80,722 jobs, and generated $492 million in tax revenues for the Golden State in 2017, plus over $1 billion in federal taxes.

“We are certainly in favor of arts venues opening as early as they can do so safely, and we do want to ensure that we’re treated fairly in the process,” said Rick Stein, president and CEO of Arts Orange County, the county’s nonprofit arts council. “Sometimes there’s just a lack of sufficient understanding of our ability for museums to open safely.”

Active, Yet Cautious

While things are looking positive for possible reopenings in the coming weeks, Orange County museums and galleries remain cautious. No one seems ready to move forward until the state and the governor say it’s OK.

The Orange County Center for Contemporary Art in Santa Ana. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Here’s a rundown of how some local visual arts institutions have been managing programming through the shutdown, and what they’re planning as far as re-opening:

    • Laguna Art Museum will follow state guidelines and plans to open “quickly when Orange County’s tier changes,” according to Cody Lee, director of communications. The museum was open briefly from June 12 to July 1, so it will be prepared to reopen again with advance tickets and timed entry and other health protocols.
      “We are optimistic that the museum could reopen before the current exhibitions close on Sept. 20, though we can’t predict it,” Lee said.
      In the meantime, the museum will continue with digital content and its annual fall gala on Sept. 26, which will be completely virtual this year.
    • The Orange County Museum of Art will also follow California guidelines and open only when it’s safe for the county, which would most likely be Tier Two. Online and virtual programming will continue through its website,
    • The City of Brea Art Gallery is closed to the general public, although it has been allowing a few visitors to view its current exhibition, “Made in California.” Artists and gallery members have been able to visit two at a time with appointments. “Made in California” closes Sept. 11.
    • The Irvine Fine Arts Center and the Great Park Art Gallery in Irvine will remain closed until Orange County moves to the red tier, according to Melissa Haley, communications manager for the city of Irvine. Both venues reopened briefly during the summer, but were forced to re-close in July.
    Paintings by Joe Forkan in the group show, “Terra Incognita” at the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art.
      According to Robin Repp, OCCCA secretary and curator of the “Terra Incognita” exhibit, attendance by appointment has been solid, with August being the highest sales month of the year. “All safety protocols are in place,” she said in an email. “We require masks, there is a thermometer at the entrance, all no-touch restroom facilities, no-touch hand sanitizer throughout the gallery.”
    • The Muckenthaler Cultural Center has opened its indoor art gallery for reservations, restricting entrance to one group of no more than four people at a time, said Ana Cottle, communications director at “the Muck.” Currently on view is “Nestle into Nature: Movements Seeking Balance,” a group show of eight contemporary Korean American artists. All visitors are required to wear masks, and each group has 15 minutes to view the gallery privately. The exhibit is also online in virtual format.

    Art During a Holiday Weekend

    So with a big Labor Day weekend on our doorstep, what is an art fan to do?

    Arts Orange County has been collecting information on the phased reopening of arts and cultural venues and events, and is publishing the information under its SparkOC website and newsletter.

    Here are some events and exhibits culled from SparkOC and from your trusty servant at Voice of OC:

    • The Huntington Beach Pier Plaza will be open today through Sunday for an open-air market of artists and artisans’ creations. Jewelry, photography, paintings, artisanal foods and “Surf City” items will be for sale. Hours are 11 a.m.-7 p.m. today, and 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Facial coverings are required.
    • Phase V of a sculpture exhibition at Civic Center Park in Newport Beach recently opened. Ten new sculptures have been installed in the 14-acre park and will remain there for two years. Members of the public are invited to stroll through the park and enjoy the sculptures at their own pace. A walking tour is included on the city’s MYNB app, which can be downloaded in the Apple Store or Google Play.
    “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” by Patricia Vader is on view in the sculpture garden at Civic Center Park in Newport Beach.
    • The gardens and outdoor areas will be open today through Sunday at Casa Romantica Cultural Center and Gardens in San Clemente. Hours are 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Masks should be worn by visitors, and social distancing is practiced. The center also has active virtual programming on its website,
    • The Muckenthaler Cultural Center will keep its sculptural garden open, with works by Bret Price and Dan Miller. The Muck is also hosting a drive-in concert with Ballet Folklorico de Los Angeles on Thursday, Sept. 10. Tickets are $30 per car.

    Still a Lot of Unknowns

    Even if Orange County enters into Tier Two next week, that doesn’t mean that every museum and gallery will automatically reopen.

    “For many museums it is not financially viable for them to open at 25% — or even 50% — capacity,” said Celeste DeWald, executive director of the California Association of Museums. “Anecdotally, we have heard that some California museums are opting to remain closed through 2020 and to focus on serving the public in other ways. There is also the risk that another surge in COVID-19 cases would force museums to close, again.”

    But staying closed for an entire year could prove deadly for any operation or business, Stein said.

    The Arts OC CEO pointed out that there’s been some ingenuity among some local performing arts organizations in terms of outdoor performances, giving the recent collaboration between the Irvine Barclay Theatre and the Bayside Restaurant as an example. For the time being, visual arts organizations might consider following their lead.

    “I am optimistic,” Stein said. “There’s other businesses that have been allowed to reopen that are more risk-taking ventures, in terms of maintaining safety protocols than museums are. So I think we have a strong case to make for museums reopening.”

    Richard Chang is senior editor for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at

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