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Go behind the scenes as Mia, our largest museum, prepares to reopen

Plans are to reopen on Thursday, July 16. At first, Mia and other museums will be able to operate at 25 percent capacity, not to exceed 250 people in a single self-contained space.

Since March 13, Mia has been closed to the public, doing its part to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Since March 13, Mia has been closed to the public, doing its part to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Photo by Evan Gruenes

The Minneapolis Institute of Art – Mia for short, since its 100th-birthday rebranding in 2015 – is one of the nation’s great museums. It’s also one of the largest: more than 400,000 square feet. To the north, it extends almost the whole length of 22nd street between Stevens and 3rd Ave. S., its neoclassical façade overlooking Washburn Fair Oaks Park.

Since March 13, Mia has been closed to the public, doing its part to slow the spread of COVID-19. Plans are to reopen on Thursday, July 16. At first, per Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz’s “stay safe Minnesota” order, Mia and other museums will be able to operate at 25 percent capacity, not to exceed 250 people in a single self-contained space. But what does that really mean?

“For us, 250 people is well below 25 percent capacity,” said Eric Bruce, Mia’s head of visitor experience. “We’re looking for more specific guidance around what that means for separate spaces, staff spaces and public spaces …

“That capacity is just sort of a snapshot in time. It’s how many people at one moment. From there, you have to think about what that means for every 15 minutes, every hour, every day, and what flow looks like. You have to start including things like average visit time, and really look at the space with a critical eye and think about potential pinch points or really small hallways. Like the little hallways that lead to the Impressionist galleries. And elevators. Things like that.”

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In other words, it’s complicated.

Since this process and these circumstances are new to everyone, we thought it would be interesting to follow Mia as it moves toward reopening. We asked Bruce to take us behind the scenes and into the offices. … No, wait, there’s nobody in the offices. Everybody’s working from home.

“I Zoom, therefore I am,” Bruce said. “I’ve been working for three months at a folding card table in the corner of the bedroom where my daughter’s crib used to be. I can’t wait to get out from behind it.”

Following are edited and condensed excerpts from a conversation we had on Tuesday, June 16, the first of three.

Early steps

“Since April, I’ve been the lead on a cross-departmental team that has a member of every division [at Mia] on it, as well as subject matter experts in areas like operations, design, facilities and security. We’ve been thinking about both staff needs and visitor needs prior to reopening.

“Part of this, from very early on, was knowing this was a scenario that could change and change quickly. We would need to be prepared for different scenarios in the building.

“Early in April, we spent a lot of time with the Carlson School developing a capacity calculator, using an architectural audit of the building. It has the square footage for every single gallery, room, hallway, elevator and staircase in the entire space, including the staff offices. Mia is a big building with lots of different parts and spaces. Different wings that were built in different times.

“We’ve had a keen eye to capacity and flow from the start, and now we’re in a position to understand that pretty well. We were able to develop a generic version of that capacity calculator, and we shared it across the nation with the Visitor Studies Association, the American Alliance of Museums and our networks.

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“We’ve been really involved in PPE [personal protective equipment] sourcing and making sure that is available for everyone. We had two partnerships outside of the one with the Carlson School. We worked with Tattersall Distilling to secure hand sanitizer. And we were able to connect with the Minnesota Opera. For a while, their costume shop was creating masks for Health Partners. They were looking for another project and created polypropylene and cloth masks for Mia staff.”

On what to expect as a visitor

“We are going to be using a single entrance and exit, the roundabout at 3rd Ave. S. Normally, we have three public entrances, but for now, we will be limiting entrances and exits to 3rd Ave.

“We’ll be doing timed ticketing and real-time monitoring of capacity. We’ve done timed admission before, but it’s always been for special exhibitions. We’ve never done it for the entire building.

Eric Bruce
Eric Bruce
“We’ll be requiring masks for visitors and staff. It is a requirement in Minneapolis that you wear masks in public spaces. We anticipate that a month from now it will be no different. We will have masks available on site, probably disposable paper masks, for people who don’t have one. That accessibility component of Mia is really important to keep in place. If people aren’t able to provide their own masks, we want to be able to support them. I don’t think you’ll see a Mia-branded mask at the store, or anything like that.

“We’ll be doing special hours for at-risk audiences. We’ll have enhanced cleaning. We’ve tried to create a touchless journey. You won’t have to touch doors. We’ve put antiseptic coverings on handles. There will be some plexi barriers, some signage. There’s a joke about signage – the more you add, the less people read it. We’re trying to be pretty strategic about where we place it so it doesn’t disappear to the eye.

“There will be some one-way flow and graphics on the floor. We ultimately decided a big one-way flow wasn’t the experience. It’s a big space with a lot of big spaces, and it can accommodate social distancing better than some other spaces.

“The café will be in the lobby. Agra Culture, our food service partner, has been operating through this, doing takeout [at their other locations]. They’re familiar with operating in these times and will bring their expertise to our café. We will distance the tables in the lobby and remove the seating from the coffee shop so people don’t linger in that space.

“The retail space [museum shop] will be open as well, but everyone will have a larger footprint to move around in. The coat check will be closed. We tend to close it during the summers anyway.

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“The first two weeks will essentially be a soft open. We’ll be asking people as they go through to survey the experience and let us know what they think, how they’re feeling and how we can enhance their visit. We want to make sure we’re getting everything right before we open up to everybody.

“We’re trying to make sure it’s the same Mia experience that people have come to love. That’s what we’re aiming for. I think it will feel similar to a lot of folks who have been out in the world right now in other kinds of spaces.

“We want people to respond to what they’ve seen and give us feedback. We’ll be asking, really actively, both staff and visitors how the experience is going. We’ll have a hotline set up for staff to get feedback so we can make changes as quickly as possible.”

On the sharing going on among arts organizations

“I’ve worked at Mia for 12 years. I’ve always felt I have benefited from the transparency in our field from organization to organization. We don’t feel we’re in competition with each other. We feel we need to build each other up and support each other, more so now than ever.

“The level of transparency and sharing has been sort of boundless. Everybody’s talking about what they’re doing, giving advice, sharing the tools they’re using, the connections. It’s been a great coming together of information and resources. I’ve been really grateful for that.

“Locally, we’ve been meeting with the Visitor Services heads of all the organizations. Every Wednesday, we have a meeting at 1 p.m. between the Children’s Museum, the Science Museum, the Walker, and so on. We’re all talking about how to make sure we all have the same resources. That shared sense of understanding can bring support and comfort to people who are returning to venues.”

On looking back at March 13

“I think we knew [the pandemic] was serious. But most of the arts leaders I’ve heard across the nation have been saying, ‘We had no idea how long this would last.’ We still don’t.

“March 13 was my wife’s birthday. I had left the museum early, after we closed it, and we were reflecting on such a strange time. What would happen next? How could we prepare?

“We have to do everything we can to keep each other safe. It won’t return to what it was. [The pandemic] really is reshaping the world.”