Courtesy of the Oakland Museum of California. Credit: Jason Lew

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Update [Nov. 17]: The Oakland Museum of California has postponed its reopening. The cancellation comes after the Alameda County Public Health Department issued a statement on Monday, Nov. 16 that the county is moving back to the most restrictive reopening tier due to the growing number of COVID-19 cases. Under the purple tier, indoor museums are prohibited from operating. California is currently experiencing its highest number of COVID cases to-date. 

When the Oakland Museum of California was forced to close last March because of the pandemic, its staff were in the midst of preparing for the spring opening of the Hella Feminist exhibition of contemporary art and history and gearing up for a gala celebrating the museum’s 50th anniversary. OMCA was also undertaking the first phase of an ambitious $85 million renovation.

While the closure disrupted the museum’s exhibition schedule and special events, it actually facilitated the renovation project.

“Construction was already happening, so a lot of our campus access was going to be off-limits,” said Lindsay Wright, OMCA’s associate director of communications.

The museum is scheduled to reopen Friday, Nov. 20 for members, and Friday Nov. 27 for the general public. Admission will be free of charge during the first weekend general admission. Visitors are encouraged to reserve a free ticket, which will grant access to the galleries of California art, history, and natural sciences.

Wright said museum staff have carefully planned the reopening to ensure that it’s safe, and that the Alameda County Public Health Department has given them approval. All visitors and staff will be required to wear a mask while the number of visitors permitted to enter the museum will be strictly limited at all times to avoid crowding. OMCA staff will also frequently sanitize the museum’s common areas.

On Nov. 12, the county health department hit pause on plans to allow more businesses and activities to reopen because of recent increases in the COVID-19 case rates in Alameda County. Asked whether this will affect OMCA’s plans to reopen, Wright said no because the museum will be operating at levels well below the approved capacity.

Visitors will get a glimpse of the renovated museum grounds, including the redesigned gardens with native plants. A new lawn on the museum grounds can also be reserved from private parties, so long as they follow health department rules. Once large gatherings are allowed, perhaps next spring or summer, visitors will be able to enjoy the museum’s new outdoor stage that will feature live music and other performances and programming. 

OMCA also has plans to unveil a new cafe, Town Fare, led by Tanya Holland of Brown Sugar Kitchen. The opening date remains unknown as indoor dining falls under different reopening guidelines than the actual museum. But the new space will be more inviting for post-pandemic visitors.

“The cafe had a couple of concrete walls, and now, we’ve opened those up to the windows overlooking the koi pond, and where the Friday nights activities were happening,” Wright said.

When the renovation is finally completed, the museum will have two new entrances, one on 10th Street and the other on 12th Street facing Lake Merritt.

“Our director and CEO, Lori Fogarty, always likes to tell the story of how the last couple of times that there has been a Warriors parade, all the national TV cameras are always facing the [Kaiser] convention center amphitheater, and there is no idea that there is a museum next door,” Wright said. “Something needed to change to make that a little more open and welcoming.”

While other cultural institutions had to lay off employees because of the pandemic, OMCA was able to keep its full staff through June thanks to a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan. When the loan ran out, OMCA moved to reduced hours. “During this whole time, we haven’t had to lay anyone off,” Wright said. “We were able to keep all full-time and part-time staff employed.”

For those who miss the popular Friday Nights at OMCA, which included live music and food trucks outside the museum, Wright said the event will resume in 2021, but no firm date has been set. There also won’t be any new exhibits until January 16, 2021, when OMCA unveils Mothership: Voyage Into Afrofuturism. (The Hella Feminist exhibition has been postponed until spring 2021.)

“We wanted to reopen at our own pace, in a way that we can make sure that safety is top of mind,” Wright said. 

After the free reopening weekend at the end of the month, the museum will remain open on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays until the Mothership exhibit launches. OMCA is encouraging visitors to reserve tickets in advance for both the free weekend and onward. Visits to the museum will be timed to prevent overcrowding. 

“Once we can get back into the campus, it feels like a renewed sense of excitement, enthusiasm, and motivation to move this forward and welcome people back,” Wright said. “Because we are really missing it. That’s what makes the Oakland Museum so special, to have the community around us.

Azucena Rasilla is an East Oakland native, a bilingual journalist reporting in Spanish and in English, and a longtime reporter on Oakland arts, culture and community. As an independent local journalist, she has reported for KQED Arts, The Bold Italic, Zora and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was a writer and social media editor for the East Bay Express, helping readers navigate Oakland’s rich artistic and creative landscapes through a wide range of innovative digital approaches.