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The maximum capacity is displayed at the entranceway of an exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario, in Toronto, on July 23, 2020.Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

In years past, on a busy summer day when there was a cruise ship docked in St. John’s harbour, as many as a thousand people might find their way to The Rooms. This year, the Newfoundland and Labrador cultural institution reopened its museum and art gallery June 29 and is delighted if it sees 150 masked faces a day.

It’s the same story on the other side of the country, where the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG) reopened June 15: It’s happy to host 150 or 200 people a day, where once it welcomed more than 1,000 during the summer tourist season.

Museums and public art galleries across the country are gradually reopening, inviting visitors back but asking that they book timed-tickets, wear masks and keep their distance from each other. The public is responding cautiously, confirming surveys that show less than a third of us are ready to return to indoor arts events immediately.

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Signage to maintain proper physical distancing is displayed on the elevators at the Royal Ontario Museum, in Toronto.Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

So, those who do venture out will discover pleasantly uncrowded spaces.

“It’s very luxurious; you can visit and there aren’t a lot of people,” said Daina Augaitis, interim director at the VAG, which will permit up to 115 people an hour to enter its galleries but has yet to fill that capacity.

Museums have been planning for weeks what reopening might look like. Their immediate challenges have involved setting up timed tickets, figuring out how people will flow through their galleries and eliminating hands-on elements. Further down the line, they have their eyes on budgets that will be missing earned revenue.

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Hailey Imany sits down on a bench that is labelled for use by one visitor, or one friends group at a time, at the Royal Ontario Museum.Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

“You can experience the ROM without feeling that you are in a crowded space,” promises Josh Basseches, director of Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum (ROM). “Whether it’s [a show about] Ancient Egypt or dinosaurs, or floral design, you can make choices that keep you at a distance from others.” At Canada’s busiest museum, the public can luxuriate in 25,000 square metres of space while capacity has been capped to 900 at one time and only 2,300 a day, less than half of what the ROM would normally receive on a busy summer day. There’s a one-way route through the popular dinosaur and mineral galleries but the bat cave and hands-on biodiversity gallery remain closed for now.

At the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), staff initially thought they needed to plan a one-way route through the entire gallery and stop crowds at every doorway, but soon realized that would create roadblocks. “It’s got to be more like a pinball machine,” director Stephan Jost said.

The AGO, which opened to the general public Thursday after initially welcoming only members and pass holders, can accommodate 150 people every 30 minutes and 750 people a day, about a quarter of its normal attendance.

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Visitors walk through Galleria Italia at the AGO, which can now accommodate 150 people every 30 minutes and 750 people a day.Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

In the short term, the institutions’ COVID-19 budgeting has prepared them for this slow start; in the long term they need not just the ticket revenue but also sales in cafés and gift shops to balance the books. Both the ROM and the VAG, for example, are anticipating a 30 per cent drop in revenue. However, the assumption, based in part on the experience of Asian and European museums, is that visitation will gradually pick up as people become more comfortable.

“A lot of what happens from here depends on whether we start to see that kind of attendance,” said Basseches at the ROM, referring to projections for attendance to reach half of previous levels later this year. That will still leave a $5-million to $8-million hole in the museum budget, despite many cuts.

In Newfoundland, meanwhile, they are not sure that the come-from-aways will return.

“I don’t know when, if ever, we will ever get back to global traffic,” said Kate Wolforth, acting director of museums and galleries at The Rooms. Currently, the only visitors are Newfoundlanders or Maritimers, as the Atlantic provinces have formed a travel bubble that doesn’t include the rest of the country. “Numbers through the door have dropped but we have been able to access those other audiences [through digital means],” Wolforth added. “For an institution that is on an island in the middle of the Atlantic, a wider audience is something we are always looking for.”

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A visitor looks at a piece on display in the China wing of the ROM. Museums have replaced touch screens by QR codes that call up videos on visitors’ phones.Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

The performing arts, which have more difficult challenges when it comes to distancing, will be watching these experiences closely to see how quickly comfort levels and cultural tourism might rise. So far, the museums can report they have no problems with either masks or distancing.

“People have learned to do it in supermarkets, they are used to it and they are very respectful,” said Susan Fruchter, chief operating officer at the ROM.

Still, distancing seems paradoxical for museums, which have sought in recent years to bring more and different people into their buildings and engage them in interactive displays deliberately calculated to push the experience beyond the contemplative. Now, hands-on activities, such as touchable reproductions of artifacts and drawing stations for kids, have disappeared and touch screens have been replaced by QR codes that call up videos on visitors’ phones. Meanwhile, museums have to wonder whether COVID-19 might discourage all but the most determined visitors.

“Galleries and museums, for a lot of people, aren’t the first place you’d go, but our members have been super enthusiastic,” Augaitis said. The VAG’s solution was to reach out to front-line workers, offering them free admission on two opening days. “Having that opportunity for essential workers was so heart-warming. … People came in from the suburbs, with families; some had never been to the gallery before and it was a culturally diverse crowd,” she said. Similarly, when the AGO in Toronto offered free annual passes to front-line workers, 16,000 took up the offer.

For museum staff, it just feels good to get people, not matter how small the numbers, back through the doors.

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The AGO is already open to members and pass holders and extended the invitation to the general public from July 23.Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

“Being closed for four months was debilitating, not just financially: We exist to be open to the public,” Basseches said. “It was a tremendous relief to return to doing what we are here to do.”

What’s on in Ontario

As museums and art galleries reopen, they are extending temporary exhibitions that had been cut short. Here are a few art shows now on view in Ontario.

The National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa reopened July 18 with Abadakone (Continuous Fire), an impressive survey of Indigenous art featuring more than 100 works from 40 tribes, ethnicities and nations. It includes work by Cree, Mi’kmaq, Maori, Sami and Nenet artists, and provides ample evidence of an international renaissance of Indigenous expression.

The Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto is already open to members and pass holders and extended the invitation to the general public from July 23. It is showing Diane Arbus: Photographs, 1956-71, an unsettling collection of work by the still-controversial New York photographer and Illusions: The Art of Magic, a crowd-pleasing collection of vintage posters from Montreal’s McCord Museum.

The Museum of Contemporary Art Toronto has reopened with a series of site-specific installations by Carlos Bunga, Shelagh Keeley and Megan Rooney that address the building’s post-industrial locale in the Junction Triangle.

The Art Gallery of Hamilton has reopened with two exhibitions. Early Snow: Michael Snow, 1947-62 tracks the development of one of Canada’s most provocative modernists and The Artist’s Dream: Works of French Symbolism probes the odd corners of fin-de-siècle art.

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