Portraits of Leadership

The San Jose Museum of Art Confronts COVID-19

Hyperakt’s interview series hands the mic to nonprofit and cultural leaders around the nation as they guide their organizations through the COVID-19 pandemic.

Today we’re talking with Holly Shen, Deputy Director of the San José Museum of Art. With a motto of “see what you think,” the California museum celebrates new ideas, stimulates creativity, and inspires connection with every visit.

From your vantage point, what stories are not being told about the impact of the Coronavirus?

Stories are not being told about the impact of the pandemic on sectors our society deems as “non-essential.” Cultural nonprofits — large and small — and artists at all professional levels are suffering due to the COVID19 crisis; the reality is many arts organizations will not survive.

This will ultimately mean less creative enrichment and engagement programs offered, particularly those designed to serve low-income groups like Title I schools or high-risk demographics like seniors.

What we see in the news cycle are the stories that tell only a fraction of the big picture — The MET reopening in August despite $100M loss in revenue, or the federal government allocating $300M to arts and culture as part of the CARES relief act. It’s difficult to quantify the full impact of COVID19, but at the very least includes lost jobs in the short term — the arts industry employs roughly 14.2M people in the US alone.

What else doesn’t get said? Arts funding across many local municipalities in the US has been slashed as a result of lost tourism tax revenue. $300M in relief funding pales in comparison to the direct loss of income for this industry, which in early April was estimated at $3.6 billion.

Children’s and science museums — critical to learning curriculum in communities across the US — rely heavily on earned revenue, many of which will suffer deep cuts or close altogether.

How have you needed to change how your staff works or the way you deliver services in order to meet the new reality?

One of the biggest changes to the way we work is accepting that we are in a prolonged state of unknowing. This is an industry accustomed to planning exhibitions 18–24 months out, with complex cross-continent loan and shipping arrangements.

In the new normal, we’re learning to operate with a level of flexibility that, at times, seems at odds with some institutional goals.

San José Museum of Art is pivoting program strategy for the coming year to a focus on our permanent collection. This greatly reduces financial and logistic risk because all coordination remains local, so there’s one set of guidelines to follow when it comes to social distancing and working with service vendors.

For Museums like ours that have a strong collection, there’s also no question with this approach of remaining mission-driven. At the same time, we’re transitioning most education programs to virtual formats or pursuing hybrids. This is not easy but there is definitely long-term potential in distance learning, if nothing else addressing the practical issues certain demographics (those with disabilities; seniors) face in accessing arts and cultural resources.

What gives you hope in this moment?

Luckily, I have an endless supply of hope and silver linings: the unexpected yet highly productive interdepartmental collaborations formed as a result of being forced to work and think in new ways; the way the local arts patrons in our community showed fierce loyalty and support during this crisis, rallying in major ways to keep the Museum fiscally solvent through what I hope is the worst.

Conversations I’ve had with new contacts made since closure remind me there are people who get it, with resources, and we need to keep trying. The coming together of the museum industry in the weeks following the closure to share resources and collaborative strategy (in one of the first webinars I attended there were 3000+ museum staff tuned in from across the globe) has made me feel a part of something very big and important.

And last but definitely not least, in the fact that spending unplanned, constant, and at-times-seemingly-oppressive time with my family has brought more joy than pain.

Explore the San Jose Museum of Art at sjmusart.org and on Instagram. Read more interviews in the Portraits of Leadership series.

Hyperakt is a purpose-driven design and innovation studio that elevates human dignity and ignites curiosity. We believe in design’s power to build a future filled with courage, optimism, and honesty.

Hyperakt crafts transformative brands and digital storytelling experiences for clear-eyed champions of social justice and creativity.