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Guidance and gratitude – on cultural leadership in uncertain times

20 March 2020

While participating on a panel at the Economic Club of Washington, D.C. on 24 February, I was asked what effect Covid-19 would have on the National Gallery of Art, where I have been the director since March 2019. I responded that we might see a dip in tourist numbers, but that I didn’t expect much overall impact. Just four days later the National Gallery of Art established a crisis management team and canceled all non-essential international staff travel, including for curators planning to attend the European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF) in Maastricht. And four days after that, we cancelled all staff travel, essential and non-essential, domestic and international. Two weeks ago, we hosted an opening celebration for the exhibition ‘Degas at the Opera’, with almost 1,000 people in attendance. The day after the event I knew we wouldn’t be able to do that again and cancelled all public events with 150 people or more. On 14 March, less than 3 weeks since my ‘not much impact’ comment on Covid-19, we closed the National Gallery of Art to staff and visitors.

Every single day since that panel at the Economic Club I am struck by how naive I was just 24 hours before. A landscape that changes daily and drastically is new territory for us. Decisions that seem extreme one afternoon appear logical the next morning. When we decided to close the museum, we announced our tentative plan to reopen 18 days later, which made me uncomfortable and seemed like an eternity. Now I realise that I was again naive to think we could reopen so soon and to set a firm date, as though we had any control in an uncontrollable situation.

With several shutdowns in our history, the team at the National Gallery has a lot of expertise in temporarily closing the museum to the staff and public. We had already drafted our lists of staff positions and functions that are essential to daily operations when the facility is closed to the public. Temporary closures are stressful enough for employees, but the current situation includes additional concerns about health, economic uncertainty and social isolation.

We must all recognise that there has never been a moment like this one in modern history and therefore there is simply no playbook for how to navigate these new challenges. This time requires different leadership skills from our sector. My primary worry is for the health and the physical and emotional wellbeing of our staff. As I think about the possible days and weeks ahead that the gallery is closed, I am concerned about how to nurture and support a staff that is anxious, filled with uncertainty, and physically remote. The challenge is to keep them all close to our mission and the people that we serve while they are working far away from the museum, the collection and our public. With 1,000 employees and hundreds of volunteers across the institution, there are a lot of people to consider and I want to be sure that we are thinking about supporting them and communicating with everyone, including people with little technological access. We all derive so much of our identity and self-worth from the work that we do, so how do I help to reinforce the great value of each of our employees when I cannot walk around the building, see them, and listen to their thoughts and concerns?

A lot of us in the field are already starting to talk about the lessons learned and how we anticipate what the ‘new normal’ might look like. As hard as it is close a museum down, it will be harder to reopen, with a raft of postponed programmes, conferences and meetings; delayed invoices, accounting, and paperwork; diminished funding; and suspended courier trips and exhibitions. We do not yet know exactly what recovery will look like. How will we prioritise delayed projects while also moving forward with existing future plans? What will we simply stop doing and how could we work differently in the future? How will our funding model be affected? In the longer term, how might a different world lead to even greater changes in our work and public service?

The young daughter of a friend of mine fills out her ‘gratitude journal’ each night, listing all the people who helped her during the day and who brought her joy. Once, I was lucky enough to make the cut. This seems like a great moment for us all to keep gratitude and generosity foremost in our thoughts; working in an art museum with a terrific staff – even if displaced – is on the top of my gratitude list.

Kaywin Feldman is director of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

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One comment

  1. I live in DC and go to many concerts and museums, often several of the first in a week. That frequently includes the NGA Sunday lecture and concert. I feel very sad that all such things have vanished and may not be available for months- if ever in my case. I will soon be 83. I think that the symphony channel on satellite radio may save my life, along with books.

    Anne Reese

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