‘Within challenges, there’s also opportunities’: Museums adapt during year of changes

MADISON, Wis. – Museums preserve art, history and culture, but even they are having to make changes during the pandemic.

“The only predictable thing about 2020 is it’s unpredictable,” said Chris Kolakowski, director of the Wisconsin Veterans Museum on the Capitol Square.

The Veterans Museum has been closed off to the public for the safety of staff and visitors since March 15, but like other museums, they’re finding new ways to connect. While the museum itself stays dark, Kolakowski said their new online offerings are extending their reach.

“Within challenges, there’s also opportunities,” he said. “We’re still open every day, all day on the web.”

While it’s now open during limited hours with enhanced safety procedures, the Chazen Museum of Art on the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s campus is also getting creative for those outside the building.

“We do a lot of programming virtually,” said Kristine Zickuhr, assistant director of administration. “We’re planning an exhibition which uses the glass of the museum, the façade, to have an exhibition that people can view from the outside.”

As change happens in the outside world, too, with the Black Lives Matter movement gaining momentum, Zickuhr said all museums are talking about how to keep up with calls for racial justice.

She said prior to 2020, Chazen was talking about how to partner with community organizations and expand hours to increase accessibility and inclusion.

“It’s a challenge for every museum, but something that needs deep thought and introspection,” Zickuhr said.

It’s something Kolakowski said he’s been thinking about at the Wisconsin Veterans Museum, as well.

“Part of that is serving the community, being a part of the community,” Kolakowski said. “How can we best do that? Are we not doing the best we can and can we do better?”

For museums that can be open during the pandemic, attendance is way down.

“It’s a challenge for museums and for really all kinds of cultural institutions, as you can imagine,” Zickuhr said. “A lot of museums rely on museum attendance to generate revenue, and we just aren’t seeing the attendance we normally would.”

While the Chazen and Veterans Museum are free to the public, museums that rely on ticket sales are struggling.

That includes the Madison Children’s Museum, which will be closed through at least the end of the year. They’re still providing programming for kids online here.

According to Director of Marketing & Communications Jonathan Zarov, the pandemic has cost them most of their earned revenue as well as some fundraising opportunities. They’re still actively fundraising, cost-cutting and taking advantage of government programs.

“But it’s also true that about 30% of museums nationwide are predicted to not reopen,” Zarov said. “We plan to be in the 70%. But we can use the community’s help to get there.”

He said they are making “bold and ambitious” plans to reopen and hope to do so by spring, if safe.

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There’s no question it’s been a year of change.

“It’s not all for bad,” Zickuhr said. “It’s an opportunity to grow and self-reflect and hopefully evolve as well.”

Kolakowski said what museums offer the community holds steady.

“A sense of place, a sense of who you are and a reminder of what we have been and the fact that we’ve been through things like this before, like the 1918 pandemic, world wars, cataclysmic events. We’ve always come through,” he said. “In many cases we’ve emerged stronger.”

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Posted by Wisconsin Veterans Museum on Thursday, July 30, 2020

Kolakowski couldn’t guess when his museum would reopen, but he said in the coming weeks, the landlord of the building is allowing veteran artists to fill the walls with murals honoring veterans.