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Less is More as an Art Museum Reopens

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HOUSTON — They waited patiently in line in 80-degree heat, standing on large blue stickers placed six feet apart, to enter the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston — the first major American art museum to reopen since the country went into lockdown in March.

The 20 or so mask-wearing visitors who queued up on Saturday morning had already waited more than two months to visit, so what were a few more minutes? First in line was Joan Laughlin, a nurse who has been coming to the museum since moving to Houston in 1970. She was here to see “Glory of Spain,” an exhibition of works from New York’s Hispanic Society Museum and Library.

“It’s good to be out of the house,” she said. “I’ve been looking for something uplifting, something beautiful.”

It was Sara Patel’s first-ever visit. Ms. Patel, a Houston physician, came with her boyfriend, who was visiting from Chicago. “They’re following all the rules,” she said about the elaborate safety precautions taken by museum staff members. “As long as everyone is complying, I think it’s fine.

At precisely 11 a.m., the museum’s director, Gary Tinterow, stepped to the front of the line. “Welcome back to the museum,” he said. “Thank you very much for coming.”

As visitors filed into the air-conditioned foyer, one group at a time, thermal imaging devices checked their temperatures. A green square around the person’s head meant they were in the clear; a red square meant fever.

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Credit…Todd Spoth for The New York Times

Gov. Greg Abbott allowed museums in Texas to reopen on May 1 at 25 percent capacity, but most cultural institutions in the state have opted to wait. Among the first to come back was the Museum of Fine Arts’ neighbor, the Houston Museum of Natural Science, which opened its doors on May 15. The museum’s many interactive exhibits were turned off, and visitors were required to wear masks, but its president and CEO, Joel Bartsch, said the museum had no problem filling its quota of 1,000 daily visitors.

“I was pleasantly surprised,” Mr. Bartsch said. “We had a very good turnout, and everyone kept their distance. Not one person complained about having to wear a mask.” Other Texas museums opening soon include the Holocaust Museum Houston (May 26), the San Antonio Museum of Art (May 28) and the Witte Museum in San Antonio (May 30).

Mr. Tinterow was on hand at the science museum to observe opening day. “I saw that all the visitors were behaving, and that people were excited and relieved,” he said during a recent interview in his office, where he wore a pinstripe gray mask that recalled an Agnes Martin painting. “That gave me confidence that if they could do it, we could do it.”

Procuring safety supplies and equipment fell to Andrew Spies, the fine arts museum’s head of housekeeping. Mr. Spies sourced hand sanitizer from a lubricant manufacturer in North Carolina, which shipped it to Houston in 250-pound drums; 10,000 disposable masks from a warehouse in McAllen, Texas; a dozen thermal imaging devices from Feevr; and disinfecting solution from the germ-fighting experts at the Children’s Museum of Houston.

The Museum of Fine Arts is one of the wealthiest cultural institutions in the country, with a $1.3 billion endowment that provides about half of its $67 million annual budget. Thanks to its solid finances, the museum didn’t have to furlough or lay off any of its 660 staff members during the two-month shutdown — unlike the science museum, which furloughed 75 percent of its staff and is only now bringing some of them back.

But even the richest museums have their limits. Mr. Tinterow said that if the museum had remained closed past June 1, furloughs would have been considered. Ticket revenue accounts for about 7 percent of the museum’s operating budget, with memberships contributing another 5 percent.

The Menil Collection in Houston, a smaller museum with strong collections of ancient, Oceanic, and modernist art, offers free admission and hasn’t taken as big a financial hit from the forced closure. The museum has not announced a reopening date, and its director, Rebecca Rabinow, would only say it will return “sometime this summer.” “Our opening is tied to decreasing Covid-19 hospitalizations, and we’re just not seeing that yet,” Ms. Rabinow said. “We’re seeing a stabilization but not a decrease.” She also noted that the Menil’s intimately scaled galleries made social distancing more difficult.

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That isn’t an issue at the Museum of Fine Arts, which comprises two major buildings connected by an underground tunnel designed by James Turrell. With around 300,000 square feet of gallery space, the museum can accommodate up to 7,000 visitors in normal circumstances. With the museum now using timed tickets to limit entry to 900 guests at a time, each visitor will have a studio apartment’s worth of space to themselves if they space out equally. (If they don’t, the museum guards have been trained to politely ask them to separate.)

“Nobody’s going to complain about having only a few visitors in each gallery,” Mr. Tinterow pointed out. “Isn’t that actually the ideal scenario?”

Mr. Tinterow, who annually racks up 200,000-plus airline miles jetting around the world to visit exhibitions and art fairs, has used the lockdown to work on scholarly projects and engage in personal reflection. A former curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Mr. Tinterow has several friends in New York who have died from Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

“Artists, galleries, and museums are suffering right now,” he said, “but I have been saying for some time that the contemporary art world has reached a fever pitch.” He added that “it was driven by an unsustainable economic model that needs to be reviewed and revised. That means it will probably be a smaller art world with fewer participants.”

Mr. Tinterow’s new philosophy seems encapsulated by an engraved sign he keeps on a table in his office. “Less is More,” it reads.

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Credit…Todd Spoth for The New York Times

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