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Pittsburgh Museums Cope With Second Shutdown This Year

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Paul g. Wiegman
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Phipps Conservatory & Botanical Garden
Phipps Conservatory's Winter Flower Show is up, but for the moment viewable only via video tour.

Operating during a pandemic was a challenge for Pittsburgh’s museums. Not operating is harder still.

For the second time this year, museums and similar attractions have been ordered closed by Gov. Tom Wolf in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus. In Pittsburgh, that includes venues from the Carnegie Museum of Art and Heinz History Center to Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium and the National Aviary. The shutdown is scheduled to last three weeks, until Jan. 4.

The closure is especially hard on places that rely heavily on earned revenue like admissions and event rentals. Phipps Conservatory & Botanical Garden, for example, earns more than 70% of its budget that way. And Wolf’s order came just two weeks after Phipps opened its Winter Flower Show – in a typical year, its biggest attraction.

“The timing of theses closures couldn’t be worse timing for us,” said Phipps CEO and president Richard Piacentini.

Museums were among the businesses first ordered closed in March, when the pandemic struck. In Allegheny County, they were again permitted to welcome visitors starting in June, when the county entered the “green” phase of reopening. For safety reasons, museums had to operate at reduced capacity. But most found that attendance was down anyway, usually well below half of what they’d normally see this time of year.

Those numbers dropped even further when coronavirus cases began to surge this fall. Attendance at the four Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh dropped to as low as 30% of normal levels on weekends, and lower still on weekdays, said president and CEO Steven Knapp.

Many museums are spacious, and with precautions including timed ticketing, mandatory masking and physical distancing, museum officials said, they were operating safely. Knapp said the Carnegie registered only “half a dozen” positive COVID-19 tests among the 1,000 employees in its facilities – the museums of art and natural history, the Carnegie Science Center, and The Andy Warhol Museum – and that contact tracing found no evidence of spread among co-workers.

The latest shutdown struck some museum leaders as a bit ironic.

“It’s disappointing that we had to close, because honestly, I look around, I can’t imagine a safer place to be,” said Anne Kraybill, director and CEO of the Westmoreland Museum of American Art, in Greensburg. But, she adds, “I understand why they had to make the call.”

Financially, the shutdown affects each venue a bit differently. Most depend less on earned revenue than does Phipps. The Westmoreland, which offers free admission, is funded overwhelmingly by philanthropy, and so suffers less from a shutdown. The Carnegie earns about one-third of its revenue, with another one-third from the investments in its endowment. It’s also among the many area arts groups that have benefited from pandemic assistance from the state or federal government, and pandemic aid from local foundations, said Knapp.

Piacentini said Phipps has not laid off any of its 90 full-time and 36 part-time workers during the pandemic; the group’s countless plants, after all, have to be tended whether visitors are seeing them or not. Piacentini said that in anticipation of a shutdown, Phipps shot a 25-minute video tour of the Winter Flower Show it is offering online for sale or rental to generate revenue.

Speaking a day or two after the first coronavirus vaccines were administered in Pittsburgh, museum officials said that development was hopeful, but acknowledged the herd immunity conferred by widespread vaccinations remain months away. Nonetheless, some officials are optimistic of reopening in January, if only in the pandemic mode they functioned in as recently as this past week.

“We certainly hope we can reopen,” said Piacentini. “We have our orchid and bonsai shows coming up the end of January, which is a really great show. And then we have our spring flower show, so we’ve got all the plants in production. … We’re going to do these shows, and hopefully people will be able to come to see them.”

However, officials also acknowledge that unless the spread of coronavirus can be reined in – during a time of year when people again, as at Thanksgiving, seem likely to gather in defiance of public-health guidelines – the shutdown could well extend past Jan. 4.

“We’re preparing for it to potentially be longer, just because of how we’ve seen the previous shutdowns happen in the past,” said Kraybill.