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As COVID-19 Threatens the Future of Museums Nationwide, 2 Treasure Coast Museums Find Ways to Thrive

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museum photos provided; artwork by Tania Ortega-Cowan

The American Alliance of Museums just surveyed 760 museums and they found that one-third are not confident about their survival over the next 16 months, due to COVID-19.

We checked in with two beloved museums here on the Treasure Coast – the Vero Beach Museum of Art and the Elliott Museum in Stuart, to find out how the pandemic is affecting them.

RS: We made lemonade out of lemons.

This is Rob Steele.

RS: The president and CEO of the Historical Society of Martin County which has the pleasure of taking care of the Elliott Museum and the House of Refuge Museum.

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Credit The Elliott Museum
Rob Steele, president and CEO of the Historical Society of Martin County, the Elliott Museum and the House of Refuge

The Elliott Museum is named for inventor Sterling Elliott, and celebrates technology, art and history, and the House of Refuge was a safe haven for shipwrecked sailors and it’s the oldest surviving building in Martin County.

He talks about when they had to close in mid-March.

RS: It took about 48 hours for that to ruminate and say you know we’re not going to lay down and have a pity party for ourselves. Let’s take this time and do some great things. We looked upon being closed for 111 days as a blessing, so we recreated, refurbished all the spaces.

He says they also changed how the Museum operates.

RS: A lot of people that would come to the Elliott in the past would say well I’ve been there once and they have cars and that’s nice, and baseball cards and baseballs, that’s nice, but I’ve seen them so I am not going to go back. I’ve been here just over a year and a half now and I’m committed to making sure that we have dynamic offerings and they’re always changing.

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Credit The Elliott Museum
The Elliott Museum

They re-opened last month.

RS: Our capacity is 1,130 and we’re limiting it to 100. We have social distancing in place. We meter the gate at the front door so that we keep 5 minutes between people coming in. You know, it’s a huge space.

He leaves us with a quote from PT Barnum:

RS: I’m a big fan – and his quote was “the noblest art is that of making others happy” and that sounds like an un-museumy thing to say but that’s kind of where we’re headed now.

Next, we speak to:

SBW: Sophie Bentham Wood, director of marketing and communications at the Vero Beach Museum of Art.

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Credit Vero Beach Museum of Art
Sophie Bentham Wood, director of marketing and communications at the Vero Beach Museum of Art

They also closed mid-March, and remain physically closed for now, with an emphasis on a massive online component. She describes their response to the pandemic:

SBW: Ours has been, I would say, very measured.

Early on, they surveyed their members:

SBW: …on how they feel and how confident they feel about coming back to, essentially, public spaces and public events. From that is where we’ve taken our lead.

Their extensive Art School also plays a big part in staying closed for now.

SBW: You know, to have classes with lots of people and very engaged and using the same paintbrushes and paints and canvasses and all the easels and everything else that goes into those classes which was what makes them so fantastic from a creative perspective, and learning from each other, we’ve had to pivot on this and look at things differently.

The result was a greatly expanded website to include film studies, exhibits, tutorials; and it’s updated weekly.

SBW: That really provides people with pretty much everything you can experience in the Museum, online.

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Credit Vero Beach Museum of Art
Trevan's Arch at the Vero Beach Museum of Art

Once they re-open, masks and social distancing will be required, as well as temperature checks at the door.

SBW: It’s for the greater good, isn’t it, you know? We’re sorely missing our visitors and our members. We want to be able to open safely. And that when we do open, that people are coming back feeling very confident about the measures that we’ve put in place.  But trust me, we will be re-opening.

Learn more here:

https://hsmc-fl.com/

https://www.vbmuseum.org/

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Credit The Elliott Museum
Auto Gallery in the Elliott Museum

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Credit Vero Beach Museum of Art
The Sculpture Park at the Vero Beach Museum of Art

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Credit The House of Refuge
The House of Refuge in Stuart, Florida

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Credit Vero Beach Museum of Art
From the Warhol Exhibit at the Vero Beach Museum of Art

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Credit The Elliott Museum
The General Store exhibit at the Elliott Museum