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SF's small museums fight to survive in a world without patrons

Jerry Cimino of the Beat Museum. | Photo: Romalyn Schmaltz/Hoodline
By Alisa Scerrato - Published on April 29, 2020.

Despite a lack of visitors, San Francisco's larger museums are largely expected to survive the COVID-19 crisis. Some, like the Randall Museum, are city-owned; others, like SFMOMA, have sizable endowments. 

But many of the city's smaller museums — from North Beach's Beat Museum to the Castro's GLBT History Museum — are caught in the middle. Without significant resources to draw on, they're heavily reliant on regular patronage to keep the lights on. And even after the shelter-in-place order lifts, tourism in San Francisco will likely be impacted for months by travel restrictions and the flagging economy. 

Monetta White, executive director of SoMa's Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD), described COVID-19 as a "real scare." She said she's had to cut staff by 40%, with the remainder working remotely, and is looking for other ways to slash expenses. 

The Beat Museum's Jerry Cimino says he's been luckier — he only has a few people on payroll, whom he's still been paying while the museum is closed. 

“We're hoping, being small, we'll be able to make it all work,” he said. But rent and utility bills are looming, "and you need an income stream to pay that."

Summerlea Kashar, executive director of the Cartoon Art Museum in Fisherman's Wharf, says she's also been able to retain her small staff for the time being. "Our plan is to keep staff on as long as possible, and maintain their healthcare coverage,” she said.

But covering rent remains an open question. 

"We have not had a conversation with our landlord — obviously, they are dealing with this too," she said. "We don't know the full ramifications or how we'll be able to come out of it in a way that is acceptable and manageable for both of us.”

Cartoon Art Museum. | Photo: BSSP

Another frustrating aspect of the crisis is the unknowability of its timeline, said Mark Sawchuk, the communications director for the GLBT Historical Society, which runs the GLBT History Museum.

Sawchuk says exhibitions planned for May (at City Hall) and June (at the museum itself) will likely be delayed. The question, he says, is until when.

"Planning is difficult when we don't know precisely when the shelter-in-place order will be relaxed,” he said.

Selecting exhibitions, working with curators, and arranging the transport of materials are in flux not just for this year, but 2021 as well.

The Castro's GLBT History Museum. | Photo: David-Elijah Nahmod/Hoodline

Many museums are encouraging their patrons to shift to online resources. The GLBT History Museum and the Beat Museum are both offering exclusive online content for museum members. 

“There are so many stories about the Beat Generation we've heard in the last 17 years, and now, with an enhanced online presence, we're able to tell these stories by streaming taped interviews already in our archives," Cimino said.

There's even a new online exhibit from the GLBT Historical Society: "Fighting Back," which contextualizes COVID-19 through the lessons learned by the queer community in the HIV/AIDS crisis. 

Purchasing merchandise is another way to keep the museums afloat. The Cartoon Art Museum offers catalogs from a number of its exhibitions (including the forthcoming "A Boy and His Tiger," a tribute to "Calvin and Hobbes" creator Bill Watterson). The Beat Museum sells books by leading authors of the era, which Cimino notes "are better than constantly watching the news."

There's even a chance to purchase art: to support MoAD, a number of artists of African descent are auctioning off their work online as a fundraiser. Hosted on digital sales platform Artsy, the auction runs through May 5. 

And of course, there are crowdfunding campaigns. The Beat Museum and the Cartoon Art Museum both have them, and MoAD and the GLBT Historical Society also accept donations. 

“For those who don't have money to give, designating us or another nonprofit as a 'birthday' or other fundraiser on platforms like Facebook are a great way for us to get some additional support,” the Cartoon Art Museum's Kashar said. 

Despite the challenges, MoAD's White says she's appreciative of the support her museum has received from the community, the partners and artists.

"There is so much love," she said. "I am just so impressed with this team, with how they are pushing through this. It just confirms why I took this position."

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