The Portland Museum of Art is closing its doors until further notice to do its part to help contain the spread of COVID-19.

The state’s oldest and largest public art institution decided to move from in-person museum visits to a digital-first experience as of Wednesday because of rising rates of transmission across the state, not because of any outbreak among the museum’s staff or its visitors, said Graeme Kennedy, director of strategic communications and public relations.

“Case numbers are rising exponentially, the weather has turned and we expect another executive order will come out soon,” said Kennedy. “As a public art institution, we take our role in the community very seriously, and our commitment to the health of our employees, members and community very seriously. It’s a proactive, voluntary and completely necessary step.”

The COVID-19 public health precautions taken by staff and visitors, such as timed museum entry, reserved tickets and masking, helped PMA pass its limited summer opening without any positive COVID-19 tests or notification of outbreaks by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Kennedy said.

The museum will continue to offer public access to its digital exhibitions and a menu of virtual events and programs, he said. Its online shop will be open, with contact-free payments and curbside pickup. Most museum staff have been working remotely over the summer, even when the museum was open, and will continue to do so, at least for now, Kennedy said.

The museum hopes to avoid any employee layoffs or furloughs during the closure, Kennedy said.


Some staff will continue to work onsite after the closure to maintain the collection and keep the building secure, he said. In past years, the museum has employed seasonal staff that work through December, but not during January, when the museum usually closes for maintenance and collection updates. Seasonal staff will be paid through the end of the month.

Like most nonprofits, Portland Museum of Art has had a tough 2020, Kennedy said. Last year, the museum drew a record-setting 179,000 visitors, and hoped to build on that success by surpassing 220,000 visitors in the 2020 administrative year. Instead, with about a month and a half left in its cycle, it has drawn just 40,000 people in 2020.

The American Association of Museum Directors warns that a third of all museums and cultural institutions will not survive COVID-19.

But there have been bright spots, too. The March through June closure sped up the museum’s process of beefing up its virtual art offerings and its community-building experiences, Kennedy said. The museum has counted 3.2 million virtual visitors in 2019 so far, a 45 percent increase over last year.

And the disruption in art lending also opened up the opportunity for the museum’s first open call exhibition in over a decade. The exhibit, which is scheduled to open Feb. 12, is called “Untitled 2020: Art from Maine in a _______ Time.” The invitation to local artists to share what 2020 had meant to them drew more than 1,000 submissions from 900 artists.

Kennedy said it was fitting, and in hindsight pragmatic, to plan for an online opening for this exhibit, as well as an in-person one.


It is unknown when the museum will reopen to the public, but museum officials remain committed to reopening museum doors as soon as it is safe, Kennedy said. In June, the Portland Museum of Art became the first major public art institution in the state to reopen after abruptly closing its doors in the face of the pandemic’s arrival in New England.

On Tuesday, the museum director, Mark Bessire, sent an email to members to inform them of the Wednesday closure.

“The PMA is voluntarily and temporarily closed to the public until further notice,” Bessire wrote in the email blast. “The goal of this closure is to support the efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19 and to ensure the health and safety of our staff, visitors and community.”

While many of Maine’s seasonal museums have already closed for winter, most major year-round art institutions are remaining open for now, with COVID-19 masking and social distancing health precautions in place, including the Farnsworth Art Museum and Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockland and Maine Maritime Museum in Bath, according to their websites.

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