Brent Benjamin

Director, St. Louis Art Museum & President, Association of Art Museum Directors
Headshot of a man.

Photos courtesy of SLAM

Music Credit: “NY” written and performed by Kosta T, from the cd Soul Sand. Used courtesy of Free Music Archive.

Brent Benjamin: Art museums and the works of art that are in them help us to understand the world around us and our place in it. And I think that that is-- continues to be the case. I don't think that the virus changes that. The virus may add poignancy to that, because of course, we know that many of these objects are survivors. They have been through the wringer over centuries, and in some cases millennia in our collection. And that is, I think, a reassuring thing at a time like this.

Jo Reed: That is Brent Benjamin director of the Saint Louis Art Museum and president of the Association of Art Museum Directors. And this is Art Works the weekly podcast produced by the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed.

The Saint Louis Art Museum is one of the great museums in the country. Founded in 1879, and open to the public in 1881, and in 1906 the museum relocated to Forest Park where it now stands. Until the pandemic, half a million people a year would visit the three-story building with its collection of paintings, sculptures and cultural objects and its rotating exhibitions and installations. It’s very much at the cultural center of St Louis not only because of its vast collection but because of its robust cultural programming. Brent Benjamin came to the museum in 1999—since then, he has shepherded the museum into the 21st century. He led the initiative to expand the museum with the new wing designed by famed architect David Chipperfield, overseen the museum’s purchase of numerous works of art and secured important gifts of major works, and launched numerous art education and community programs that have drawn more audiences to the museum. Brent Benjamin also had to make the hard decision to shut the museum down temporarily in the face of the Covid 19 pandemic---

Brent Benjamin: Well, you know, we had been expecting to need to close the Museum, early on, when the COVID virus started popping up in the U.S. My CFO and I were chatting, and she's like, "You know, we're going to have to close sooner or later," and I said, "Yeah, let's think about the framework within which we're going to make that decision." You know, because nobody was going to tell us, "It's time to close." We were going to have to figure that out. So we obviously looked initially to the recommendations of health authorities at the National, State and Local level, the CDC and their cognates in Missouri and in Saint Louis. We looked at what civic authorities were saying here in the City and the County of Saint Louis, because of course this has, as we've seen has a very different character in different parts of the country. We looked at what peer institutions across the nation were doing. We looked at what large entities, similar to us at the Zoo, at the Botanical Garden, the History Museum and Science Center were doing here in Saint Louis, and specifically we looked to see what the schools were doing. And on Friday, I think it was Friday the 13th of March, the Governor of Illinois said he would be closing the schools on the next Tuesday. And on Monday the 16th, the Governor of Missouri said he'd be closing them on Wednesday or Thursday. And so that was really our signal, because we thought when the schools are going to be closed down by the order of the Governor, it was time for us to close as well. So anyway, that was the framework. So I went into work on Monday morning the 16th, not expecting that I would be closing the Museum that day, and by 11 o'clock, we decided to close. And so we sent the staff home, and that's where they remain to this day, with the exception of, obviously, a core staff of security officers and engineers keeping the systems running, all those kinds of things.

Jo Reed: And how does the Museum get its support typically.

Brent Benjamin: So we are a rather unusual in that we are very heavily supported by property taxes that come from property owners in the City of Saint Louis and in the County of Saint Louis, which are separate political entities, so it's a taxing district. And back in the '70s, the voters in the City and the County decided to tax themselves to support the Art Museum and the Zoo, which before that had been city agencies, in fact, this was known for many years as the City Art Museum of Saint Louis. So, the Zoo-Museum District came into being and that'll be 50 years old actually in 2022. And that supports, or that provides about two-thirds of the operating support for the Saint Louis Art Museum, and in part, because of that, the Museum is free to the public.

Jo Reed: And how are you dealing with employees in the wake of the shut-down? Are they furloughed, or are they still getting paid? How is that working? It's such an enormous responsibility you have.

Brent Benjamin: Yeah, it's true, and I mean, there are any number of approaches to this. We found ourselves rather well-positioned for this circumstance in that we're very stable financially. We paid off some long-term debt last year. We established a very robust operating reserve of 200 days. And the very-- we established a very robust operating reserve of 200 days of operating cash. So we're in a very fortunate circumstance. So we sent the staff home and said we'd be pay them for a month, for four weeks. And then we'd see what this looked like, because of course, we have no idea how long this might last. And then about three weeks into that, we told them that we'd pay them through the end of June. So everybody is home. Everybody who can work from home is expected to be working from home. Everybody is on call, so if somebody from the Museum calls and says, "You know, we need you to come in because we need someone to accompany a contractor who's here working on the roof," or whatever it may be, they're expected to come in. And my hope is that we'll be open again before the end of June.

Jo Reed: Before the end of June, because that's part of the problem, isn't it, with this. It's unprecedented on so many levels, but part of it is the indefiniteness, is that even a word <laughs>, of the closure. One just doesn't know how long it's going to be.

Brent Benjamin: Well, it's as murky on the reopening end as it was on the closing end, right?And now, of course, that we're so many weeks into it, and we can see that there've been just terrible impacts in places like New York and Seattle. And then there have been much lesser impacts in other places. And we've certainly had impact of the disease. You know, many people sickened, and then many people have died here in the Saint Louis area, but we haven't had the kind of density or intensity that has been the case in some locations. So but in talking with colleagues, you know, people are modeling everything from Memorial Day to July 4th to Labor Day, and even some thinking it won't be until late in the year. I think that we-- the Mayor, let's see how to say this-- Mayor Lyda Krewson, here in the City of Saint Louis, just ten days ago said that they would begin relaxing the stay-at-home order here in Saint Louis today, Monday the 18th of May. She did not include the Art Museum or any of the other organizations and locations where people gather in that. So we were not included, the Zoo was not include, the Convention Center was not included, the casinos were not included, just like I was saying before. But we were invited to submit a reopening plan for review by the City. And so we're in the process of doing that. But in talking with colleagues who run the larger institutions here in Saint Louis, I think we're all thinking that at some point in June, we'd really like to reopen for the public, and that that should be--and that with proper precautions in place that should be possible.

Jo Reed: How are you, while you've been closed, how have you been engaging with the community? Have you expanded your online offerings? What kind of things have you been doing? Just so you're front of mind for people in the community.

Brent Benjamin: Well, that's a great question, and we found ourselves really well-positioned for that, because we had just put in place a whole new infrastructure around virtual access to the Museum and its collections. And that was completed, the technical piece of that was completed about a year ago. And so we were actually really well setup to be putting some things out. And so we initiated really within a week, an initiative that's called The Object of the Day. And so we're sending into every member's mailbox directly, and then posting on the Museum's website, and pushing out on social media platforms one Object from the collection with a brief interpretative text, the kind of thing that you would find on a label on the gallery walls. And it's been remarkably impactful. The number of people who have written in and said, you know, "That's just great! I look forward to seeing you every day. Thank you for keeping the Museum in my heart and my mind while I'm stuck at home. You know, it's the best aspect of my day. Please include my favorite thing." But one of the opportunities it's provided is not only to serve the public of the Museum and to do that in a very specific and focused way, right, here in Saint Louis, but to remind people that the collection is comprehensive, that there are fantastic works of art of types they may never have thought about, and that might not be a gallery that you would go to when you went to the Museum, but you might go now. And we've had a lot of people say, "Well, I never noticed that object, I'm going to take a much closer look when I'm back from this stuff." And so it's caused people to really think about the character of the collection, to expand their curiosity about the kinds of things that are in the collection and to take them out of their comfort zone, right? Whatever that might be, and to actually expose to them to other things in the Museum. So that's been really impactful, and we've seen that our visitor numbers are similar to the numbers we had last year on the website. But last year, about 60 percent of those visitors were looking for information. You know, "What are the Museum hours, how do I get there, is there parking?" You know, the usual kinds of things. And now almost 100 percent of it is a deeper dive into the collection. So it's been very, very interesting how impactful this has been. Lots of people have written to say, "Oh, I always forward it to my grandkids, and then we talk about it at night. We Zoom together and we talk about The Object of the Day." You know, people with kids all over the country. And really been an interesting sort of vehicle for the creation of community in a virtual kind of way. So that's been really, really satisfying to see the impact that that relatively simple initiative has had. And people are begging us now to continue it after we reopen. And a number of people say, "You know, I'm still not going to be able to go back, because I'm at risk, I'm elderly, I'm--," whatever, "So would you continue it because I want the Museum in my life every day." So that's really pretty extraordinary.

Jo Reed: What a gift! I think that's wonderful! You know, Brent, as I said, you're also President of the Association of Art Museum Directors, and I'm wondering what you're hearing from Museum across the field, and just the extraordinary financial burden so many of them are facing, and how many of them are reaching out for CARES Act funding, or trying to get a small business loan through the Paycheck Protection Program, you know, what are some of the resources they're really trying to use to keep going?

Brent Benjamin: Yeah, and that's a very complex question, and I would like to back up from it in terms of answering it, at least initially. You know, museums have really four sources of revenue and those are public resources of sort of the type that we receive, endowment income, obviously, earned income in the form, primarily of admissions to the Museum and admissions to exhibition. But also profits that people may be making on parking operations or on food services or on space rentals of the Museum shop, And then finally annual support membership, so annual giving of whatever you might-- it's call different things, but essential annual support. And you know, each of those revenue streams has been, and will continue to be affected by the virus and the implications of the virus, and of course, the economic downturn, right? I think that certainly civic entities are under huge pressure in terms of budget, because of sale taxes and those kinds of things, so that's obviously a concern. Endowments are down because of the market, with the level of unemployment across the country. We were very much about annual support, all of us, because that's just not going to be possible for people who have lost jobs.

Jo Reed: And also-- I don't mean to interrupt-- but it's at the worst possible time. It's an awful time. It's Gala season.

Brent Benjamin: Well, yeah, there are Spring Galas and there are Fall Galas. <laughs> So, but you're right <laughs>, it is Gala season, so you can't-- clearly can't have a Gala today, right? And I've seen some organizations that have done some virtual things that have been, you know, it's a festival in their way. We-- our Gala actually is in the Fall. it's actually the first Saturday of December, and we've been talking about that, because our question is, "Well, with all the conversation about a potential bump in the virus load again in the Fall, are we going to be open? You know, we can't have it if we're not open. Will people come?" I mean, it's complicated. But I think that the real impact, the most unexpected impact is probably the way to say this, is the impact on earned income for those organizations that charge at the door, or that depend, really in any way on earned revenue. Because when you are obligated to shut down, that flow of funds goes away. And your expenses do not, right? You still need to pay salary. You still need to pay benefits, you still need to pay utilities and debt, and all the other pieces that make the business go. So that has really been a dramatic impact. And so when you hear from museums across the country about the kinds of deficits that they're facing, it's a combination of all these things. But the earned income has been-- really, really been a challenge and a problem. So you've heard certainly people are doing all the things that you would normally do. Because I know some colleagues who have been very successful in working with their boards to raise what you would call a resilience fund, you know? Sort of a bridge fund to just to make things-- smooth things out in the short term. Certainly there have been furloughs and layoffs across the U.S., which is very unfortunate. A number of organizations have applied for the EPPE funds, which will be a great help. And I think we're all thinking, "How does this affect us not just today, but how does this look a year out? Two years out? Three years out? What's shifting in terms of what we may have been expecting in a way that's going to really compromise our business model?" And you know, in a funny way, a colleague said to me, "Well, you go to the Museum and you visit the Gallery, take a look at the collection and you see the exhibition and you like it or you don't, and you have an experience, right? But you don't often think about your experience as a visitor in terms of the business that underlies the Museum itself. And so you've got a business here, not unlike many businesses where every source of revenue has been affected. And so it's a moment that is not only dynamic, but it's really disruptive." And a lot of what we might have taken for granted in the past, of you know, of air freight shipping capacity, right, and cost. Predictability of schedules and the couriers. All the kinds of things that make an exhibition program go, those have all been disrupted in just massive ways. And we don't know in what form they'll come back.

Jo Reed: Michael Kaiser, who, as you know, had been President of the Kennedy Center, now consults for not-for-profit art managers, he says his greatest fear is for mid-size institutions. That larger institutions have endowments. Smaller ones are used to being poor, and they can be very, very nimble. And I just wonder what your thoughts are about that as you look across the field?

Brent Benjamin: Well, that's very interesting, and Michael <laughs>-- Michael knows a lot about this. But I don't know for art museums whether it's so much about size, as is about the robustness of their funding streams. So you might have a very large Museum that is very, very weak in regard to its resources and the sustainability of its resources. And you might have a small one, or let's say a medium sized one that's very, very strong in that regard. So I'm not sure I would make-- slice it in quite that way. Although, he's right that small organizations are used to being very scrappy. And large organizations, you know, have a pretty big footprint, and with endowments and resources and their big depth support on their boards and so on. And that is probably going to make a difference. But then if you look at the college and university field, and you see what's going on there, and it's not dissimilar, you know, because without tuition, it's very hard to make those organizations go without tuition, even with endowments that are in some cases billions of dollars. So I do think that we're going to, unfortunately, see a shake-out, and I think that's probably going to be about-- more about financial robustness, than it is necessarily about organizational scale.

Jo Reed: Understood. Brent, I think it's fair to say the museums that reopen are not going to be exactly the same museums that closed. And I'm sure you're thinking right now about how you can safely reopen. Can you like share some of those discussions? What are you thinking about doing in Saint Louis?

Brent Benjamin: So I'm thinking about the moment we're in and will be in here for the next unknown period of time, right? Six months, twelve months, eighteen months, twenty-four months-- something like that, and then I'm thinking about what comes after that. And I think that I have a very different answer to that question, depending on whether we're talking about the now or the future. And as to the now, I think that one of the things that we're toying with is the idea of how much physical distancing to impose and how to do that. We're thinking about what kind of protection we need to offer or mandate for the staff and for visitors and for volunteers. And we're thinking about what that means in regard to the experience of going to the museum and interacting with original works of art. So in our case, and I think in many cases, we're thinking about mandated temperature checks, certainly for staff, possibly for visitors. We're thinking about mandated masks, use of masks in public spaces. Perhaps not in a closed office, but certainly in corridors, in restrooms, in elevators and those kinds of things. We're obviously, doing much more frequent cleaning of high-touch surfaces, so desktops, doorknobs, push plates, elevator buttons, all those kinds of things. We're reminding people to socially distance. And certainly going to be imposing that in places where people gather, so for example, in front of the information desk, by the exit, by the entry to the temporary exhibition, as people line up outside the Museum. And I think most dramatically for us we're thinking about limiting the number of people who have access to the Museum at any given time. And the Governor has put out a framework for that, and he said that for spaces that are under 10,000 square feet, which would be our temporary exhibition galleries, those should be limited to no more than 25 percent of their fire code occupancy. And for spaces of larger than 10,000 square feet, which of course is the public spaces of the Museum, the galleries, the lobbies, the hallways, all that, that those access should be limited to no more than ten percent of the institution's capacity. So that is a really significant restriction on access. And it's interesting, because we're always trying to remove barriers to access. <laughs>

Jo Reed: I know! <laughs>

Brent Benjamin: So you know, we spend a lot of time thinking about how do we encourage people to visit, and how to make sure that they feel comfortable in the Museum in every way, and how to make sure that they have an experience that's memorable in the positive sense, right? And now we're in the position of saying, "Oh, you can't go in yet, because we've got 300 people in the building, so you're going to have to wait until someone comes out," something like going grocery shopping is today, right?

Jo Reed: Right.

Brent Benjamin: You have to wait outside the store and so on. And it's just a dramatic shift in the concept of welcome and hospitality. And so we're thinking through how that works for us.

Jo Reed: And I would assume also a moratorium on interactive exhibits.

Brent Benjamin: Well, we don't have so much that is touchable. We have a few. And those will probably-- those, we'll just shutdown. And you know, one of the wonderful things about these powerful computers we all carry in our pockets that we call cellphones, is that we can push these things onto those platforms, so you can still access the CAT scan of the mummies, for example. You can still flip the Roman coin to see the reverse side of it and those things, but you'll need to do it on your own device and not on a screen that's in the gallery.

Jo Reed: And on a more mundane level, I grew up in New York City, and grew up going to the Met, I don't see how you can socially distance in that gift shop, and dining is going to be the other thing in museums.

Brent Benjamin: Yeah, I think we're working with our food service-- we are working with our food service provider in regard to their protocols to offer food service both for safety and for maintaining this kind of distancing. And in a café situation, you certainly can put stickers on the floor or whatever, to enforce distancing, thinking about screens of course at the transaction point, thinking about things all being prepackaged and prewrapped and not being served out of a larger bowl or something. And in the restaurant we'll have to be distancing tables and setting it up very differently than it's set up today. Whether that makes economic sense is a whole different question, and that's a question that we're in discussion about now. So, but yes, I think that we will be certainly shifting those kinds of things.

Jo Reed: And I imagine museum programming will be a challenge.

Brent Benjamin: Yes, that’s true. Most on site programming involves gathering, right? Whether it's a gallery talk or a lecture or a Member's Morning or the Book Club. But certainly a school visit. There's really-- you're dealing with groups, you're dealing with groups of 20 and 30 and 40 people sometimes. Probably 20, 30, no more than 40. And lunches and openings, and all the different kinds of things that museums do, both in their educational programming and in their development programming and fundraising programming. So I think a lot of that is going to have to be discontinued in the near term, just because there's not really a very good way to take 20 people on our introductory tour and ask them to stand six feet apart. And some galleries it's impossible, because they're small. So I think a lot of these things will be pushed, again, into some kind of a virtual format. We do think that some of our older patrons may hesitate to come back before the risk is substantially subsided, because of course, anybody who's in my age category is at risk. So we do think that in the near term, about which I mean, probably at least 24 months, there's going to be some real upset to our expectations for the Museum's public programming. We're not even sure that schools are going to be allowed to have offsite activities like a field trip or a curriculum-based program at the Museum.

Jo Reed: But you said you're also looking at not the near future, but the mid-way future, the future-future, and where are your thoughts going there?

Brent Benjamin: Yeah, well, that's actually really interesting, and obviously, you know, projecting the future is a fool's errand, but one does have to think about it particularly given that major exhibitions are typically organized with a two- to three- to four-year lead time. So we're already working on exhibitions for two and three years out. And we're looking at that schedule and we're looking at some of the disruptions that we've seen in the shipping capacity and the shipping schedule, and the incredible increases in costs, and realizing that the kinds of things that we've come to expect just as a matter of course that you could book a flight and truck something in a crate to Chicago, put it on a passenger flight, and fly it to London with somebody accompanying it, deliver it to the National Gallery, unpack it and come back. Today, that's not possible, right? You can't get-- the capacity is almost non-existent. The couriers are a real problem because of quarantine needs in different countries. So any organization like us that's organizing international loan shows is really going to have to rethink that and that will come back, but we're not sure what kind of a framework it'll come back in. So we're thinking much more aggressively about programming, of course, drawn from our own collection. We're thinking about collaborative programs with U.S. and North American-based institutions in the near term, and maybe of less reliance on big international loan shows. And we think that that's probably going to be a matter of capacity and a matter of cost.

Jo Reed: And finally, in closing, I'd like your thoughts on what the role of art and culture, more generally, is in a time like this one.

Brent Benjamin: Well, I have always thought that art museums and the works of art that are in them help us to understand the world around us and our place in it. And I think that that is-- continues to be the case. I don't think that the virus changes that. The virus may add poignancy to that, because of course, we know that many of these objects are survivors. They have been through the wringer over centuries, and in some cases, millennia in our collection. And that is, I think, a reassuring thing at a time like this.

Jo Reed: Great. Brent, thank you again. I really appreciate you giving me your time, and my best, best wishes for you for reopening in June.

Brent Benjamin: It's a pleasure. Thank you so much!

Jo Reed: Thank you!

That is Brent Benjamin director of the Saint Louis Art Museum and president of the Association of Art Museum Directors. To keep up to date with the museum’s plans, and see some of their magnificent collection stop by SLAM.org. You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Subscribe to Art Works and leave us a rating on Apple because it helps people to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed, Stay Safe, Stay Kind, and thanks for listening.

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Brent Benjamin is the director of The St. Louis Art Museum (SLAM) and president of the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD). And so we take a close look at one museum through its closing to its transition as it works to reopen; and, a wider, more general view of the concerns of art museums across the country as they deal with financial short-falls and traverse the various roads to reopening. Benjamin is a great guide to both. He is, of course, deeply immersed in preparing SLAM for reopening—which is a complicated venture—and he has a keen sense of the challenges faced by museums around the country.

And, here’s some bonus audio: In April, AAMD adopted temporary measures designed to give its members greater flexibility in managing finances as they work through the pandemic. They’re a bit complicated, and Benjamin walks us through them to give a greater understanding of just what challenges museums are facing.