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At Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens, the property and former home of heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post, March is Orchid Month, the highest of holidays. Normally, the museum can count on thousands of flower flâneurs to idle through the museum’s vast orchid library, which boasts some 2,000 specimens. But this year, Orchid Month was canceled. Since March 15, the orchids and Hillwood’s many other treasures—the Beauvais tapestries, the Sèvres porcelain, the Fabergé imperial Easter eggs—have been sealed from view.
For the past eight weeks, visitors have been barred from entering Post’s former manse in D.C.’s Forest Hills neighborhood. And as with other museums, Hillwood Estate was forced to furlough many of its staffers as a result.
“Hillwood welcomes our largest number of visitors in the spring, when thousands of people enjoy the beauty of our flower and azalea gardens,” says Kate Markert, executive director for Hillwood Estate. “Sadly, this year, we had to be closed, resulting in the loss of our highest revenue-generating months of the year.”
Hillwood has been more fortunate than most, though: The museum successfully applied for and received a loan through the federal Paycheck Protection Program, the backstop initiative stood up by the U.S. Small Business Administration. With a $1.068 million loan in hand, Hillwood Estate was able to bring back all 18 staffers the museum had furloughed—some full time, most part time—onto their payroll as of May 4.
Other museums in the area are still waiting to see whether they will come out ahead in the PPP lottery. Loans through the program have slowed to a trickle as the SBA tries to avoid the mistakes of its widely criticized first round of funding, in which several publicly traded companies such as Shake Shack and Ruth’s Chris Steak House received grants. The trickle of loans means that many museums in D.C. are waiting to see if they’ll receive any federal support during the lockdown.
The National Building Museum, for example, has received approval through its bank for a loan through the Paycheck Protection Program. But as of this writing, the museum has yet to receive confirmation of funding from the SBA. At the end of April, the Building Museum announced that it was canceling its Summer Block Party, the institution’s most popular program of the year. This year’s spectacle—a partnership with the Folger Shakespeare Library—would have seen the museum staging A Midsummer Night’s Dream all summer long.
The Phillips Collection is in a similar boat: The museum’s application has been accepted, but the loan has not yet materialized. Another private modern art collection, the Kreeger Museum, is still awaiting approval for a loan. Federal museums were not eligible to participate in the program, so neither the National Gallery of Art nor any Smithsonian Institution museum applied.
By City Paper’s count, the only other D.C. museum to get a PPP loan as of press time is the National Museum of Women in the Arts. The downtown museum snagged a loan from the initial $349 billion round of funding, which was exhausted over just 13 days in April. The museum’s slice, about $500,000, will enable it to meet payroll for salaried workers and support some 21 part-time workers. Museum director Susan Fisher Sterling describes PPP as “of critical importance to the National Museum of Women in the Arts’ ability to pay our full-time staff salaries and bring our part-time staff members back as quickly as possible.”
The International Spy Museum, which debuted its new $162 million museum building in L’Enfant Plaza one year ago, declined to answer a question about its participation in the program. The Museum of the Bible, which opened its $500 million building four blocks away in 2017, also declined to answer a question about PPP. Like other companies and nonprofits, museums that receive a loan via PPP may have that loan forgiven if they spend the bulk of it on payroll. Glenstone, the contemporary art collection in Potomac, Maryland, has not laid off any staff as a result of the pandemic. Neither Glenstone nor Dumbarton Oaks, a Georgetown museum and research library linked to Harvard University, applied for a loan.
By some accounts, the local art world’s experience with the program lines up with broader complaints about SBA’s PPP execution. According to a museum spokesperson, Hillwood applied for its loan through Eagle Bank, which is headquartered in Bethesda and serves the DMV region; the Building Museum, whose loan is still pending, applied with Capital One. Nationally, smaller and regional lenders have processed the overwhelming majority of PPP loans, according to the Federal Reserve. The result: Loan dollars are steered away from the coasts and toward less populous states in the Midwest, and small banks dole out more PPP.
Museums in the area that have canceled programs and postponed exhibitions are looking for ways to bring back staff while putting more of their work online. More drastic solutions, such as selling artworks, are off the table for now. All of the museums mentioned previously in this story confirmed: Nobody is looking to sell any Impressionist landscapes, Dead Sea Scroll fragments, or Fabergé eggs at this time.
With weeks or even months of lockdown still on the horizon for the District, museums are writing off this spring season as lost. Few appear to have found any federal support to weather a long summer.
“We are very grateful to have received the PPP grant, which allowed us to bring back the staff we had furloughed to offset some of the income losses,” Markert says.