Upstate Will Be First to Test New York’s Arts Appetite

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About an hour’s drive from New York City, ensconced in a thicket of greenery near the bank of the Hudson River, the Dia:Beacon art museum has been sitting empty for nearly two months. Mostly empty.

Landscapers have shown up to mulch the garden, inspectors have come to check out the sprinkler system and a couple of staff members have been fixing a section of particularly worn floorboards, all in preparation for some elusive date when visitors will trickle back into the bright, airy gallery rooms of the museum.

This uncertain future became a bit more conceivable this week when Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo outlined his phased plan for reopening during the pandemic. The plan is to allow upstate areas, with fewer coronavirus cases, to transition back to normal life before the downstate regions do — and only after they reach certain public health benchmarks.

As officials in states like Texas, Oklahoma and Missouri allow movie theaters to reopen, Mr. Cuomo made clear that New York’s reopening of the arts and entertainment sector would not be quick or easy. The state has classified arts institutions in the fourth and final phase of businesses that will be allowed to reopen, after restaurants, hotels and retail stores.

The directors of community theaters, museums and art centers in the Mid-Hudson region and beyond were relieved: As they had hoped, an institution like the Herkimer County Historical Society, which typically hosts about five visitors at a time in the summer, will be able to open up sooner than, say, the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But they realize it will mean working for several weeks to transform their institutions so that visitors will feel safe.

“Finally we can think through what the next steps will be and take control of it,” said Jessica Morgan, Dia’s director. “That feeling of not knowing was very debilitating.”

For Dia:Beacon, a 300,000-square-foot facility that was once a Nabisco box-printing facility, social distancing should be manageable. To put visitors at ease, Dia plans to institute a timed-ticket system to limit the number of people in the building, and is installing hands-free faucets in the restrooms. Upon the reopening, gallery attendants would be tasked with regulating the number of people in each room.

Dia’s confidence in its ability to keep people effectively social distanced has prompted the administrators to join with other New York museums to try to convince state officials that museums could be included in the third phase of businesses allowed to reopen, along with restaurants and hotels, rather than the fourth phase. The rationale is that museums don’t necessitate intimate gatherings of people, unlike theaters, which put people together in one confined space for hours.

“It would be kind of punishing for us to follow the same guidelines,” Ms. Morgan said.

In a statement, a spokesman for Governor Cuomo, Jason Conwall, said that the governor’s office was not aware of such a request from museum administrators but reiterated the state’s plan to reopen businesses based on public health criteria, factoring in their ability to mitigate risk.

Mr. Conwall noted that “there may be businesses that operate more like retail than a crowded theater, making it possible for certain elements to be in Phase 3 if they can show that they can implement policies for social distancing that reduce risk.”​

Cultural institutions of all types are devising plans so when the governor gives the green light to open, they are able to invite visitors into a space that requires them to touch nothing and get close to no one.

“We’re going to try to create a contact-free experience from the moment a visitor steps onto our property,” said Paul S. D’Ambrosio, the president of the Fenimore Art Museum, a renovated 1930s Georgian Revival mansion in Cooperstown, N.Y., which is among the regions that could open soonest.

For that museum, changes include controlling the direction of traffic with signs or tape on the floor and eliminating interactive features that encourage visitors to touch artifacts, like a reproduction of a wampum belt that is shown with its American Indian Art collection. Other art administrators are planning to install plexiglass to separate receptionists and guests, move art classes outside or install virus-killing foggers to disperse disinfectant inside.

But these tools will not be put to good use until the state’s rigorous public health guidelines are met. When New York’s lockdown order expires on May 15, each of the state’s 10 regions will see where it stands on specific criteria like virus-related hospital deaths, hospitalizations, hospital-bed vacancies, testing capacity and numbers of contact tracers.

Once those boxes are checked, the state would allow construction and manufacturing to start, and some retail stores to open for curbside pickup. If the numbers still look good after two weeks, that region can move to the next phase, which includes professional services, more retailers and real estate firms. Next would be the arts, education and recreation.

“Upstate New York, the numbers are dramatically different than downstate,” Governor Cuomo said at a news conference on Friday. “It’s like a different state.”

In the state’s rural North Country region, near the Canadian border, patrons of the Thousand Islands Arts Center are eager to get back to their glazing and knitting classes, said Leslie Rowland, the center’s executive director. (Its region has met five of the seven criteria for reopening so far.)

Ms. Rowland said she felt confident about getting back to the community art classes, which can be hosted outside, with students wearing masks, though she was less sure about the center’s craft and antique shows in August, which usually draw more than 2,000 people to a large arena in town.

“People need a creative outlet,” she said. “You can only do jigsaw puzzles for so long.”

Arts administrators tend to be more reticent about opening up again if they risk that New Yorkers from downstate will travel north. Governor Cuomo has warned that arts venues will not be allowed to open if they draw significant numbers of people from outside the region, becoming what he termed “attractive nuisances.”

Mr. D’Ambrosio of the Fenimore Art Museum said that was a concern in Cooperstown, which relies on tourists to fuel the local economy.

“We have to be very careful about this,” he said.

The fear of an influx of visitors from a high-risk area to a low-risk area has prompted some organizations to cancel programming for the summer, regardless of whether the governor says the region can get back to business.

In the westernmost corner of New York, the Chautauqua Institution typically draws about 100,000 visitors from around the country and world into a small town, hosting nine weeks filled with more than 2,000 cultural events — including plays, concerts and lectures. There was no way to make that model work during a pandemic, said the institution’s president, Michael E. Hill, so it decided to cancel all in-person events and move them online.

And in Cooperstown, the Glimmerglass Festival, which also draws guests from around the world, has canceled all of its summer performances.

Even for local arts institutions far from New York City, the transition back to inviting in guests will not be easy. The Clemens Center, a 1,600-seat theater in the Southern Tier, less than 10 miles from the border with Pennsylvania, sees at least half of its revenue from touring Broadway shows, which have come to a standstill. Another chunk of revenue comes from school groups, who visit the theater to see touring educational shows and seem unlikely to return anytime soon.

Then, there’s the sense among all arts administrators — from the cultural behemoths in Manhattan to the small-town centers — that it will be some time before people will be visiting with the same zeal as before the pandemic.

In the Hudson Valley, a community theater housed in a building made to look like a big red barn, the Center for Performing Arts at Rhinebeck, could feasibly move its summer run of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” outside to an expansive field on the property, said Lou Trapani, the artistic and managing director.

But, Mr. Trapani wondered, “If I were to open and say, ‘Come in,’ I’m not sure if people are going to.” People might be so nervous about the virus that they won’t want to take part in a public gathering, even if they would be sitting on blankets at least six feet apart from one another.

So first, he plans to call up members of his community and perhaps ask them on social media whether a socially distanced night at the theater would be too close for comfort.

“Regardless of what the governor says,” Mr. Trapani said, “I’m going to talk to my community, and if they’re not comfortable, I’m not opening.”