One more step toward normal in New York City: the Museum of the Moving Image reopened on May 1st after closing its galleries and theaters for 412 days due to the coronavirus pandemic. Even though attendance is legally limited to 50% capacity, administrators have capped ticket sales at 25% capacity and limited theatre screenings to 50 people for the first few weeks as an extra safety measure. Visitors and the museum’s staff were excited and relieved to see the doors, shuttered since last March, finally open again.
Despite the restrictive regulations, eager movie fans of all ages lined up outside the museum, which is located beside the complex of Kaufman-Astoria studios, on Saturday to revisit the museum’s world-renowned film archive. Little children ran through the halls and ramps of the Tut’s Fever Movie Palace retro movie theatre design exhibition, while their parents studied The Simpsons original hand-drawn animation cells in the amphitheater gallery.
“This is one of the coolest museums I’ve been to in the country,” said visitor Jasper Mebane, who was especially interested in the museum’s core Behind the Screen collection, which features everything from pulpy 50s drive-in posters to original Star Wars action figures. “They have toys I recognize from my dad’s collection back home.”
The limited entry policy means that not all staff members have returned to their past jobs, but those that did were excited. “I like to see the smiling kids back,” said security guard Lakeshia Lopez, who had worked at the museum for five years until the shutdown forced her out of work. “I’m hoping we get to 100% really soon.”
Veteran set designer and Astoria local Martin Fahrer couldn’t wait to come back as well. “You can physically walk through the history of the industry here,” he says. “It’s nice to see so many people I’ve worked with on display.”
Behind all of the smiling faces on Saturday, though, was more than a year of fear and heartbreak as the museum’s administrators struggled to ensure that there would even still be a museum to reopen. The museum’s focus and main attractions, including its state-of-the-art Redstone Theatre screening room, made it doubly difficult to gauge when it could be safe to operate again since it is beholden to both sets of state regulations for museums and movie theaters. The losses, as result, cut deep.
“All in all, we lost around $1.6 million dollars, maybe now $2 million, out of what was a $6 million dollar budget over this period,” said Carl Goodman, the museum’s executive director. “It wasn’t just losing a museum. It was losing a valuable city resource.”
As it became clearer that the pandemic was going to last much longer than he originally thought, Goodman and the leadership team began to find new ways to exist without a physical space. As the world moved online, so did the Museum of the Moving Image. Instead of stopping its local after-school programs, the museum moved them onto Zoom. They received a generous National Endowment for the Humanities grant of $296,490 to revamp their website and host interactive virtual screenings, like their July showing of Radioactive (2020) with a follow-up Q and A with director Marjane Satrapi and star Rosamund Pike.
For local audiences, they moved outdoors by partnering with the New York Hall of Science and Rooftop films to build the Queens Drive-In in Flushing Meadows Corona park over the summer.
They employed local restaurants to provide food and concessions at the screenings and made sure a good number of their events were free, so New Yorkers from any socio-economic background could attend. A portion of all ticket sales were donated to ElmCor, an Emhurst-based community service organization that provides healthcare and economic help to underserved communities in Queens. The Drive-In will hopefully, Goodman says, become a permanent part of the museum’s work and is now beginning its second season.
Even as the city moves towards its goal of “totally reopening” by July 1st, Goodman says that the museum’s online programming will be here to stay. “It’s not to replace what happens at the museum, but to augment what happens at the museum,” he says. He’s hopeful that ticket sales and increased programing can make the museum self-sustaining enough to no longer rely on the city and federal aid they’ve been receiving, which currently covers around 15% of their budget.
They also will continue to serve as a polling location for the upcoming mayoral primary, since the museum is housed within a city-owned building. “This museum is owned by the people in New York, and we have a certain obligation to be there for them,” Goodman declared. “It’s for every single person who lives in this city, and it’s been through what they’ve been through.”
Update May 3rd at 3:00 p.m.: An earlier version of this article did not specify the museum’s own capacity restrictions separate from the state’s legal guidelines or that the museum is in a city-owned building beside Kaufman-Astoria studios, and has been edited for clarity.