This story is part of a Globe Magazine special report, appearing in print on Sunday, March 29. The directors were interviewed on March 16.
On Thursday, March 12, with the coronavirus pandemic worsening every day, the directors of Boston’s most influential art museums got on an emergency conference call. By the end of it, they had made the unprecedented decision to temporarily close, for the safety of their staff and their patrons. In an oral history, they describe how they came to their decision — and what happens next.
Matthew Teitelbaum, director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston: We are all, as individual leaders in Boston, committed to working collaboratively amongst art museums. So it was an easy conversation to initiate. And Jill, you might say something about how it began when you reached out to me.
Jill Medvedow, director of the Institute of Contemporary Art: I think it all began on Thursday [March 12]. The Gardner Museum, the MFA, and the ICA participated in a conference call learning about the plans of each other as well as [those] of colleagues in the city. And we quickly came to the decision collectively that we were all to close by the end of Thursday. And at that point, we agreed that we would is- sue a joint statement.
Peggy Fogelman, director of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum: Our institutions really are places for people to have solace and gain a sense of human connection at times of crises. So it’s particularly heartbreaking to have to make a decision to close. It was really based, obviously, on the concerns for the public, the concerns for our staff, and wanting to be in alignment with what was happening on the ground in a very rapidly changing situation.
Medvedow: I have never, in my experience, had to close a museum, which feels like such a brink to have fallen over in terms of not fulfilling our most basic and beloved mission: to share works of art and ideas and community with others.
Teitelbaum: The concern is between the need to present art and public space for convening, of sharing ideas, of creating moments of com- fort with each other, and have that in balance with the safety concerns that were — that are — so evident. One only had to walk through the halls of the MFA to understand what our staff was feeling and saying about their own situations, and that of their loved ones, to come to a very quick decision.
Medvedow: I feel incredibly sad that we’re in this position as a globe. What we did was try to make an ethical decision based on the information that we know. I think this shows that the contract we make with one another writ large is paramount in the time when we have seen so many of our institutions of democracy weakened. And so I think that while it was painful, too painful, to see our spaces empty of our beloved public, I don’t think that there’s any conflict in the ethics of the matter.
Teitlebaum: [Going forward] my own view is we all hold on to the notion that art has a very particular place in our society, which is, of course, why the MFA — and I’m sure the ICA and and the Gardner and [Harvard Art Museums] and others — are thinking a lot about how to have a presence online and in our communities at a distance, during a time when our physical site is closed. We don’’t give up on the notion of creating platforms for art.
Medvedow: I’ve been telling myself, my staff, to stay safe, stay sane, stay kind. We’re all in our different roles facing so much uncertainty about how challenging and painful this is going to be. But we don’t know where this or when this ends. And so I think what we can commit to is this sense of staying close, staying connected, being responsive, and being leaders in a time when this sense of the social contract is critically important. It is life or death.
Fogelman: I have great confidence and trust that art can really lead the way in terms of how we deal with this in a very humane, compassionate, and community-minded way. Pollyanna-ish as it might sound, that really does reinforce this sense of humanity and caring and compassion and sharing that really is the basis for a lot of what we do.
Medvedow: We see how many amazing works of art come from — and really confront — trauma, and take small individual moments or names and turn them into something that is monumental and collective. I trust that. I trust that our great artists will be our partners in healing as a society. After 9/11, we really saw that when the world needs art most, that we will be here and we will be strong. And that’s our job. It feels like a privilege to do it.
Teitelbaum: [In the days just after the MFA closed], my wife and I took a walk around Jamaica Pond. And I thought about Frederick Law Olmsted, and the way in which an imagination can create a new world. It was so energizing to think about how somebody’s vision could find its form like that and invent and create something that didn’t exist before. It was a resonant moment for me, for both of us, be- cause that’s the mode we’re in, in which we know we have to re-create something. We know we have to put the pieces back together in a new way. And we will.
Kelly Horan is a freelance arts reporter and a senior podcast producer for The Boston Globe. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Interview has been edited and condensed.