SPEAKING: Aldy Milliken
with Natalie Weis
For the past several weeks, headlines in the art world have focused on the big numbers coming from its biggest institutions: in New York City, MoMA cut its budget by $45M, the Metropolitan Museum of Art laid off 81 employees, and Mayor Bill de Blasio reduced the city’s arts funding by 35 percent, while SFMoMA laid off or furloughed more than 300 employees.
But how has the pandemic affected smaller museums operating outside our nation’s art centers? To gain some perspective, Ruckus spoke with Aldy Milliken, Executive Director of KMAC Museum.
The following is a condensed version of our Zoom conversation on April 30, 2020.
Natalie Weis: The current story in the art world is one of closures, layoffs, and furloughs. Tell me what you can about KMAC’s situation and the museum’s plan to weather the crisis.
Aldy Milliken: We see this crisis in three phases. There’s the triage phase: how do we respond quickly to the needs of our audiences. Next is the calibration phase, or the new normal: how do we respond in the slightly longer term. And then the last phase is the reopening and the long-term strategies KMAC adopts for one and two years into the future.
For the triage phase, before we closed, we were washing our hands, really upping our sanitation strategies and cleaning the building avidly. With the Picasso and Summer Wheat exhibitions, we were having 400 and 500 people coming through the museum on a single day, which was triple what we had had in the past.
But we felt like we had to be responsible citizens. This wasn’t about KMAC anymore, but about how we serve the community and how we protect our citizens. The ethos of KMAC is to respond to our community and our audience, so on Friday, March 13th, the whole staff gathered downstairs and agreed we had to close.
Since then, we did have to furlough and lay off a few employees. We cut back my salary drastically and lowered staff salaries. Now that we’ve received some federal funds, we’ve been able to increase everyone’s salary back to about 90%. Everyone has their healthcare. We haven’t hired back employees yet. But we were able to stabilize the institution and start thinking about what the new normal looks like and how we then respond to our audiences and deliver content.
NW: Museums and galleries worldwide have been quickly shifting to create more digital offerings. What has KMAC been doing in the digital space since the pandemic forced the temporary closure of the museum's physical space?
AM: KMAC has an incredible curatorial team, great education and membership teams, and a fantastic retail space. So we started making mini task forces that would find ways to deliver content, mostly focusing on social platforms like Instagram, Facebook, Vimeo, and YouTube. We then divided those platforms by staff members, so it wasn’t just the marketing person, but it was the engagement team or even our art handler that would take over Instagram for the day. The museum is a group of 16 people that all have their perspective on artistic practice, and we enabled them to tell their own stories about how that ties in with KMAC’s mission of connecting people to art and artistic practice.
Then we started looking for ways in which KMAC could be not just this building but little pop-ups in different parts of the city. We have a program now where we’re providing KMAC Art Bags with pencils, paper, crayons, pencil sharpeners, and coloring books that we can give out at Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) lunch sites to support kids and families who are all having to stay safe at home. That’s an example of how we’re trying to activate people in this new normal environment.
NW: You’re also Chair of the Arts and Culture Alliance (ACA), an 80+ member organization that seeks to leverage the collective power of our region’s arts and culture sector. What kind of collaborative efforts are taking place to ensure a healthy future for our arts community?
AM: The ACA is an amazing organization that went from having check-in meetings every two or three months to meeting twice a week. We’re interested in the same things KMAC is navigating, including what the triage phase looks like and how people are responding to granting opportunities.
When the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) applications came out from the federal government, the ACA was communicating with everybody to talk to their bankers, and as a sector we were able to get access to funds much quicker. Almost all of us were successful in getting access to the federal funds, which is a game-changer. I’ve talked to colleagues across the country that are still waiting because they missed the boat the first time.
We also brought in someone from Fund For the Arts to talk about what emergency funds are available through their sources. They have typically funded arts organizations, but are now including cultural organizations in collaboration with the ACA.
The ACA has been important as a network to share ideas and to let everyone know we’re going to get through this together. Not everyone out there in the world understands what arts organizations need or how they’re going to respond. By working together and sharing information, all our individual institutions are stronger
NW: As the pandemic threat lessens and businesses and institutions begin to reopen, how do you imagine the museum’s role in the community evolving?
AM: The ACA is working on developing what the reopening will look like. We have three different task forces. The first is exploring what the reopening looks like from a health and safety perspective. That group is talking to different arts and cultural organizations as well as representatives from Louisville Tourism, the Mayor’s office, and the Beshear administration.
The second task force is exploring how we serve JCPS students. If we can’t have actual camps, can we do virtual field trips or provide other educational opportunities, such as the KMAC Art Bags I was describing earlier?
The third task force is exploring how we assess our impact as a sector. What does success look like for an arts and cultural organization if we can’t show an impact number? No one’s walking through the door at KMAC right now except for me and a security team. But we’re reaching a lot of people. We’re meaningful for a lot of people.
This goes back to your question about how we evolve. We all know that there is a new normal. And it needs to be strong, it needs to be meaningful, it needs to show relevance and exceptional content for our region. Artists and arts and cultural organizations are the great storytellers. That is not going to change, but the delivery is going to change.
I think the hardest thing right now is that being closed means we can’t learn what we need to do. We can think about hand sanitizer and door openers and no-touch cash registers and ticketing times and all these other things. But until we really start doing it, we’re not going to know how to make it all happen. But we’re ready to do it!
NW: How do you feel this might shift the post-pandemic appetite for the digital versus the physical in the visual art world? Is it Zoom exhibition openings from here on out, or will people be hungry for the communal experience of visiting a museum?
AM: I do think the public is going to be nervous and hesitant to begin. I think there’s going to be a transition period where people will think differently about a public setting, and that’s going to be different across the sector. One of the things we’re trying to do is think about is who can open first, what we can learn from that organization, and how we can take it into our own context. We can do public art projects in open spaces that will be safer to engage with so people start feeling comfortable in that art experience. We have to lead them into a sense of security. I don’t think that’s going to come back right away. But that’s OK. It’s a challenge we will overcome.
NW: From a financial perspective, it’s not just institutions and arts workers, but also the artists themselves who have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic. Tell me about your involvement with the Artist Relief Trust.
AM: After we got through that first triage phase, I started thinking about our artist community. Al Shands and Julien Robson have been supporting artists for many years through the Great Meadows Foundation. I had the fortune of talking to them and getting their support for an artist’s relief fund and then connecting Julien with Elevator Arts, as well as other artists who could assess the needs of their colleagues and respond to the needs of Kentucky artists. The Zoom calls with Elevator Arts have been an incredibly bright spot in my day. Here’s this group of artists who would probably never be in the same room together sitting on a Zoom call talking about their friends who need help and how a micro-grant would really make a difference helping them pay rent or pay for electricity and food. It’s just pure compassion.
NW: What are some of the other ways people can support the visual arts community right now?
AM: If people have opportunities to give money to Elevator Arts or Fund for the Arts or their favorite arts organization, I think that’s the first and easiest step. But maybe we also need to reassess our values. When I was in a call with the mayor, I wanted to make sure that he heard that I would love us to rethink how we’re funding the arts. Small amounts of tax dollars should be allocated to the arts. That money will initiate and secure other funds that then can be leveraged to make a stronger arts scene.
And I think we have to think a lot longer-term about this. We don’t need to go into crisis mode every time there’s a crisis. Why don’t we go into a mode of planning ahead? Or taxing the folks who come to Louisville for bourbon? There are so many creative ways that we can go about it.
NW: Let’s talk about how your personal day-to-day has been affected. What does your daily work life look like right now? How are you spending your time outside of your professional duties?
AM: My day is basically the same in the sense that I walk to KMAC every day. But then I’m basically alone here in the building. I’m getting much better at making an awesome cup of coffee in our cafe––I can almost make a latte heart. And then the rest of the day is troubleshooting, problem-solving, and talking to colleagues. It’s been way more Zoom calls, way more phone calls, bouncing from local to regional to national organizations.
After I finish the day, my wife, daughter, and I go running or mountain biking in Cherokee or Iroquois Park. And then we make dinner. It’s really a very simple lifestyle. Our son is in Sweden on a gap year, so we connect with him and also get a sense of how they’re addressing the needs of Stockholm. Sweden has a slightly different philosophy on what open looks like and it’s an interesting comparison.
NW: What are you most looking forward to experiencing when social distancing guidelines are relaxed?
AM: I miss museums. I miss being physically present in front of artwork. I’m fortunate that I can see Summer Wheat’s show downstairs. I can see the Picasso works every day. And I’m seeing some good work online but I really want to go experience art again––to be physically present and connected to an art piece. I think more people are appreciating either making something with their hands and being creative or having this physical experience with art. The lack of interpersonal and physical experiences with creativity, that’s maybe what I miss the most.
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