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Museums and artists in Tampa Bay feel the pain of coronavirus closures

In a time with less state and federal funding, attendance is an important revenue stream.
The Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg has been temporarily closed since March 14.
The Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg has been temporarily closed since March 14. [ VANDI CARMELLA, | Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg. ]
Published Mar. 24, 2020
Updated Mar. 25, 2020

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Kristen Shepherd, executive director of the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, was keeping tabs on how other museums around the country were responding to the coronavirus pandemic. When the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City closed to the public, Shepherd and the MFA’s board decided to follow suit.

Since closing on March 14, things are stable at the museum. Employees continue to work, some remotely, others in solitude in the cavernous building. And part-time hourly workers who can’t go in will be paid for the first four weeks, with a review every two weeks for the duration of the closure.

Financially, the museum is missing out on admissions, which comprise 13 percent of its revenue.

Looking ahead, the future is uncertain.

“It’s very challenging because we don’t know how long the closure is going to be,” Shepherd said. “Financially this is going to put a strain on so many industries and individuals, including those in the arts, where support has already been reduced or cut at the federal and state level.”

Yet Shepherd remains optimistic. She was head of membership and annual giving at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York during the financial crash of 2008, so she’s dealt with uncertainty.

“One of the things that’s great about moments of adversity and challenge is that creative people come up with innovation."

Museums, art centers and galleries are beefing up online presence to keep engagement alive.

A visit to the Morean Arts Center’s website yields a virtual tour of the “Fresh Squeezed” exhibition, as well as a video called Prompt, in which random words are chosen from the dictionary to inspire art projects.

But closing the art center and all its other facilities, including the Morean Center for Clay and the Glass Studio, meant that classes were canceled, affecting 28 to 32 artist instructors, six artists-in-residence and six gaffers in the hot shop.

Pedestrians walk next to the windows of the Chihuly Collection, which reflect the Morean Arts Center.  Both of those facilities have closed to the public due to the coronavirus.
Pedestrians walk next to the windows of the Chihuly Collection, which reflect the Morean Arts Center. Both of those facilities have closed to the public due to the coronavirus. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

“My income just stopped and I don’t know when it will start again,” said Elle Leonard, who teaches tile and mural building at the Center for Clay.

She also sold items in the gift shop of the Chihuly Collection, which is under the Morean umbrella, so she’s missing that income too.

“It’s like turning off a spigot,” she said.

Morean spokeswoman Robin McGowan said they’re taking steps to get artists’ work online for purchase. Online classes might be an option further down the road.

“Our director of education is working on developing readily accessible vehicles and platforms for the teachers to pursue if that becomes the path forward," she said. "We’re approaching the classes that have been taught over typically six-week and eight-week cycles in a safe and virtual manner.”

Murals are also taking a hit. St. Petersburg artist John Vitale lost two mural commissions from local restaurants, jobs that would have earned about $8,000. With five employees and a family to feed, that’s a significant amount.

The Vitale Brothers paint a mural at Techno-Soli in St. Petersburg during the 2019 Shine Mural Festival.
The Vitale Brothers paint a mural at Techno-Soli in St. Petersburg during the 2019 Shine Mural Festival. [ SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times ]

Vitale says the crew has been considering painting uplifting murals to ease some of the shared anxiety. But if more mural jobs dry up, he said he’ll sell his paintings online, or do whatever it takes to support his family.

“We consider ourselves fortunate that the mural gig has gone on as long as it has.”

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