Open the Gates

The Monterey Bay Aquarium allows visitors to spend as much time as they wish, but they must follow three designated one-way routes; they can repeat those routes.

When Corey Madden relocated from North Carolina to run the Monterey Museum of Art in August 2020, it was five months into the museum being fully closed to visitors. It has remained that way since, with digital-only exhibitions and events. On Thursday, May 13, the museum reopens for in-person visitors for the first time in 14 months.

It will be different than it used to be, at 50-percent capacity, which means admitting 25 people an hour on 45-minute timed tickets; if you linger too long in one place, museum staff “will gently encourage you to move on,” Madden says.

While the number of people experiencing MMA in-person might be down for now, the number of people experiencing MMA digitally is up, with up to 8,000 viewers per month on its virtual platforms, including social media. Madden thinks of it as building a new wing without having to actually build a new wing – a way of featuring more artwork for more viewers, and a hybrid of virtual and live is something that is likely to persist post-pandemic. “We can reach large numbers of people digitally, and we are really interested in that,” Madden says. “That gives people choices depending on their own preferences and health status.”

That formula will apply for opening day, with the exhibits Color Duets and Transformations viewable in the gallery, followed by a virtual opening with abstract photographer William Giles, textile designer Kaffe Fassett and painter Erin Lee Gafill.

Different institutions are trying out different models as they reopen for in-person visitors; at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which reopens to the general public on May 15, capacity remains limited to 25 percent for now. It’s a chance for visitors to experience a normally crowded destination in an uncrowded way, with about 2,500 people per day, rather than as many as 10,000 on a typical summer way.

“It makes for a really unique visitor experience,” says VP of Guest Experience David Rosenberg.

Similarly to MMA, the Aquarium went big on digital in its 14-month closure, something that is likely to stay. “Digital is not going to go away,” Rosenberg says. “We are able to reach more people than we have in the past. But the Aquarium is built to be open.”

Even with an ongoing digital presence, Madden expects in-person museum experiences will continue to thrive for two main reasons. One, she says, is social – the communal experience of meeting a friend to see art or attend a reception. The other is that the in-person experience still holds a unique place that cannot be replicated.

“Art does communicate something completely different in person,” she says. “The visceral experience of texture and color, the way rooms are laid out, that immersive experience – that relationship to looking at art can’t be reproduced in digital. It’s nothing quite like going to see a really real painting.”

Sara Rubin loves long public meetings, red pens and reading (on newsprint). She has been editor of the Monterey County Weekly since 2016, and has been on staff since 2010.

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