On Friday, March 13, the Minneapolis Institute of Art closed to the public, part of a tsunami of closings that began that week, gathered force over the weekend and left us all stunned by Monday. At the time, many believed the closures would be temporary and brief and COVID would soon be under control. A sign outside one museum said “Closed Until March 28th.”
That was four months ago. Tomorrow – Thursday, July 16 – at 10 a.m., Mia will reopen to the public, thoughtfully and cautiously. Only 250 people will be allowed inside at a time. Masks must be worn. Social distancing is required. Hand sanitizer will be available throughout the building.
You can’t just waltz in, as you could in the past. You’ll need a timed ticket. You can order one online in advance, or as you’re threading your way through the crowd control stanchions at the door. Those are new. So are the stickers on the floor: “Enter Only,” “Exit Only,” arrows, footprints. There aren’t too many of those, and they’re tasteful.
Once inside, you can go anywhere you like. On Tuesday afternoon, we were invited to walk around and take it in with press contact Michaela Baltasar-Feyen. It was wonderful and strange.
We saw some old favorites and many, many things we hadn’t noticed before. We went right up to Rembrandt’s “Lucretia.” We circled Nick Cave’s “Soundsuit,” peered at new collages by Julie Buffalohead and revisited the Frank Lloyd Wright Hallway. We encountered hardly anyone, even though we knew people were at work all around us, preparing for the reopening.
You forget how big Mia is – with 137,000 square feet of galleries – until you’re mostly alone there.
On Tuesday, the museum felt remarkably calm, considering the reopening was imminent. Nobody’s hair was on fire. There was still a lot left to do. Signage and stanchions to place, seating and banisters to wipe down, plexiglas panels to install. But everyone seemed confident it would all get done. The museum store, run by Rita Mehta, looked sharp and ready for shopping. Things have been moved around and comfy furniture has been removed, but inventory has not been reduced.
Earlier that day, we spoke with Kristin Prestegaard, Mia’s chief engagement officer. She’s in charge of audience engagement, which encompasses marketing, public relations, design and editorial, and visitor experience, something that may never again be the same as it was before March 13. This conversation has been edited and condensed.
MinnPost: What’s one example of how things have changed since March 13?
Kristin Prestegaard: We’ve had to deploy our skills in different ways. For example, we’ve done a lot of work with journey mapping, thinking about how people experience art. Now we need to think about how they enter a building, keeping safety first and center. We’re thinking about things like signage, wayfinding, greeting – all the logistics. They’re the same items, but viewed through a different lens, because it’s all about making sure visitors are safe and comfortable.
MP: What for you has been the most challenging part of this process?
KP: The variables. That everything keeps changing. I’m really proud of how the team built all of our tools so they can be applied and adjusted, from our ticketing system to our signage and our website messaging. We know how many people can be in each gallery, based on a tool we developed with the Carlson School. All of these frameworks can be applied to different situations. This gives us the ability to be reactive, but also proactive, with COVID or anything.
MP: What has been especially satisfying?
KP: That the things we have done well we’re doing even better. [For example], I think our new signage is simple and effective and still beautiful.
MP: When I last looked, tickets were nearly gone for both Thursday and Friday.
KP: We’re starting to invite people back in waves. Because safety is our first priority, we want to make sure to start small and build from there. We’re balancing reservations so people can get in, but there will be room for walk-ups, too. We’re not exactly sure of that mix because we obviously haven’t been here before.
Because we’re adding visitors back in waves, we can try something and test it. We have a very robust observation survey methodology at Mia. We’ll be able to observe visitors in the first two weeks, get their feedback and make adjustments. That gives us the flexibility to try things that if we weren’t agile enough, we wouldn’t be able or willing to try.
MP: Are you hoping to expand beyond 250 people soon?
KP: I think it’s very likely we’ll feel comfortable expanding that number. But that’s the [state of Minnesota’s] baseline rule right now. I think they are just wanting to make sure that people are safe. We’ll be looking at the pain points, the gathering entrances. We need to first make sure we can get 250 people safely through things like the lobby. If we can accommodate that, we can get more people into different rooms in the building.
MP: The clock is ticking. What’s still on your to-do list?
KP: We’re installing some signage and putting final touches on some of the plexiglas to keep our staff safe. We’re tweaking the language on our website. And we’re training staff.
MP: As a hypothetical, a visitor decides to take off their mask. What will Mia’s response be?
KP: We’ll ask them to put it back on and let them know Minneapolis has an ordinance saying they need to wear a mask. There are situations where people don’t need to wear them or have a medical condition. We’ll need to evaluate those on a case-by-case basis.
MP: Whose job will it be to respond?
KP: It depends on where it happens. It could be somebody at the front of house. It could be a security member, or it could be someone on our visitor experience team. We’re trying to make [the mask requirement] as clear as possible with signage, stories we’re talking about in the media and the website. When you reserve your ticket, we have you check a box saying you understand you need to wear a mask.
MP: You mentioned that you’ll be gathering information and collecting data during the first couple of weeks. What will you be looking for?
KP: Mainly that people are understanding the signage and the communications. We think that if people understand it, they’ll be willing to follow it.
MP: Have you made any changes based on George Floyd’s killing and the response to that?
KP: First of all, we’re addressing it. We’re making sure people understand we’re listening and learning. We’re a data-rich institution, and we want to apply those skills to listening to our staff and audiences, especially audiences that have not traditionally visited Mia. We don’t feel like we’re going to make changes until we hear from the audiences what they need from us.
MP: You had the Philando Castile show, “Art and Healing: In the Moment,” in 2018.
KP: Philando’s mother came to us. She helped us build a community advisory group. That’s a good example of being responsive to what the community was asking for. It would have felt very different if we decided to put that show on without her desire or the community’s desire. That would have been wrong.
MP: Are you participating in discussions about who should get the art created during the protests?
KP: We are very clear that is not for us to collect. We are on standby if anybody would like our help. Again, we’re wanting to follow the lead of the communities where the art was made, and for whom it was made, and the artists.
MP: Some museums are reopening first to members, then general audiences. What was the thinking behind Mia not doing that?
KP: Because we have such a broad membership – we have a membership model that’s very inclusive – we wanted to balance getting everyone in who wanted in, but not in a traditional way. We wanted to make sure we had spots open for lots of different types of visitors. Which is partly why we made sure there are walk-up spots available.
MP: Not everybody is ready to go back.
KP: We know that. We know some people are really ready and excited to go back and a lot of people are not. We’re not going to stop our digital offerings, because we want to make sure we’re still reaching the people who aren’t ready to go back.
MP: What can we as visitors do to have the best possible experience?
KP: If there was ever a very special time to visit the museum, it’s now. You’ll be one of just a handful of people in a gallery. You might have the gallery to yourself. When else will you ever get that chance? Make a reservation, wear a mask, ask questions and give us feedback. If you feel safe and comfortable, let us know. If you don’t, if there are things we can change, we want to know that, too.
MP: Have you been back to Mia since March?
KP: I have not. I’ll be back Thursday with the team.
MP: What are the first things you want to see, the first places you want to go?
KP: Because I’ve never been away from the museum for four months, I want to look at it with really fresh eyes. I want to come through the lens of a visitor, through the lobby, then through the upper lobby. I just want to see where I would naturally go, with no preconceived ideas.
MP: What else would you like people to know as they walk through the door?
KP: That we’re excited to have them back. That we miss them. That our museum exists because of our visitors.
At present, Mia’s hours are Thursday through Sunday, 10 a.m. through 5 p.m. If you plan to visit, read this first.