By Ellis Henican
For 5½ months, it was the largest art-storage locker on the planet.
Well stocked but eerily still.
Now that another small crack has opened in New York’s coronavirus shutdown and visitors are trickling back in, the Metropolitan Museum of Art is again doing the job it is here for, helping to shed fresh light on our current travails as only great art can.
The two Kyles—Kyle Alderdice and Kyle Sherman, one a furloughed bookseller, the other an actor at a time of no theater, both of Harlem—were standing in the brightness of the Met’s Carroll and Milton Petrie European Sculpture Court. They were gazing somberly at “The Burghers of Calais,” Auguste Rodin’s haunting bronze depiction of another city under siege.
“You know the story?” the first Kyle asked the second Kyle. It’s quite a tale and quite a relevant one.
It goes back to the 14th century and the Hundred Years’ War, when Edward III claimed to be heir to the Kingdom of France. After a long and bloody assault, Edward’s army had managed to capture the northern French city of Calais. So eager was the English king to exact retribution for the citizens’ “obstinate defense,” he ordered they be killed en masse. The massacre was suspended only after six of Calais’s leading citizens agreed to present themselves to the angry king, “bareheaded and barefooted” with ropes around their necks, prepared to die so that others might live. Rodin’s massive sculpture depicts the forlorn men just as they are leaving for the king’s camp in 1347, carrying the keys to the city’s gates and citadel.
Desperation. Patriotism. The tragedy of horrible choices. “The Burghers of Calais” evokes it all. And a city at the brink of who knows what.
The Met closed abruptly on March 13, the same week that much of New York went dark. For more than a century, the museum had never been shuttered for more than three days at a time. And even now, no one can predict the city’s future as a world capital of commerce, culture and humanity, not until the pandemic is over and the raging virus is tamed. But we do have some potent infrastructure that will help to propel a glorious return, quite a bit of it up a large set of stairs at 1000 Fifth Ave.
Just as the best art always tells a story, so do those who curate it and those who come to consume it.
“Our message to New Yorkers is that we all endure many things living in the city,” said Kenneth Weine, the museum’s vice president of external affairs. “This has been a traumatic five-plus months for all of us. So, please, come enjoy this jewel.”
Saturday was the public reopening, preceded by two members-only days. Advance reservations are required now, but they’re easy to get. Masks are mandatory. Temperatures are taken at the door. And the crowds are limited to 25% capacity. What all this seems to mean in practice is that, with so few tourists in the city, people who live here suddenly have the run of the joint.
“We were always confident we could offer a safe experience,” Weine said. “Two million square feet. Hundreds of galleries. A trained security staff. And filled with New Yorkers who understand the importance of masks and social distancing.” It was really just a matter of Gov. Andrew Cuomo saying, “Go.”
Other notable institutions newly reopened include the Museum of Modern Art, the American Folk Art Museum and the Museum of the City of New York.
The Met’s cafes and restaurants are still closed under the state’s no-inside-eating restrictions, but the permanent galleries are open, and there are three new things to see: Jacob Lawrence’s “dynamic cubism,” much of it focused on African-American life. Mexican artist Héctor Zamora’s curving masonry block wall on the rooftop terrace. And a retrospective called Making the Met, 1870–2020, celebrating 150 years of the museum’s collection. “The actual anniversary was April 13, right at the pandemic’s height,” Weine said.
“I was here on Thursday, and I’m back again,” Alderdice said. “It’s where I come alone whenever I need a lift.”
But on Monday, he brought along his actor friend Kyle Sherman, who moved to the city from Missouri in 2015 and had never once set foot in the Metropolitan Museum. “Yes, it’s ridiculous,” he said. “I was even in a show that’s all about the Met.”
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He was Warren, he said, in Adam Gwon’s musical “Ordinary Days,” the cheerful, annoying one who sees beauty in simple things. Two key scenes are inside the museum, including one under a Claude Monet painting. There’s even a song called “Saturday at the Met.” In the finale, Warren and his friend Deb are back at the museum, where he explains to her that ordinary things, “simple, familiar and full of feeling,” can also be art. That’s when he delivers the show’s musical finale, “Beautiful.”
“Really, I can’t believe I’ve never been here before,” Sherman said after the short Rodin briefing.
This week, even the story behind the sculptor’s bleak “Burghers of Calais” ends on an encouraging note. Edward’s queen, Philippa of Hainault, begs him to spare the lives of the six Calaisians. Against his better judgment, he relents.
Is there a message in there for COVID-19?
Ellis Henican is an author based in New York City and a former newspaper columnist.