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Balboa Park Museums Doing What They Can To Survive During The Pandemic

In a two-part series, KPBS reporter John Carroll examines how some of the park’s cherished institutions are holding up during the pandemic.

A sign in front of the San Diego Museum of Art in Balboa Park announcing the ...

Photo by Alexander Nguyen

Above: A sign in front of the San Diego Museum of Art in Balboa Park announcing the museum is closed to protect public health because of the rise in coronavirus infections, Dec. 5, 2020

Listen to this story by John Carroll.

Balboa Park is much more than just a beautiful park. It is home to most of San Diego’s museums.

They all closed once the pandemic hit in March. Some have remained closed since then. Others have reopened, only to close again once San Diego moved into the purple tier.

Spending time in Balboa Park reminds you of why people call this 1,200-acre expanse the jewel of San Diego.

The lush setting is home to some of San Diego’s cultural gems, repositories of everything from priceless works of art to some of the wonders of the industrial age, and the miracles of science.

For the institutions that house all of it, the months since March have presented challenges none of them have ever had to face before.

Read the second part of the series here.

“The closures have been a very difficult thing to overcome," Michael Warburton said. He works for the Balboa Park Cultural Partnership, an umbrella group representing most of the park’s museums.

“Some of the museums, this is their third time being closed," he said. "Some of the performing arts venues haven’t had performances for the public since March.”

Some of the institutions are financially healthy enough to make it through to the other side of this pandemic easier than others. For most of them, however, the loss of their main source of revenue, ticket sales, has meant painful decisions.

“Many of the organizations have had to go through furloughs and layoffs, really cutting back on things that they can perform or programming," Warburton said. "It has been a challenge, needless to say for the organizations in the park and different challenges for different organizations in different ways."

Reported by John Carroll

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“It’s definitely been an interesting and unique experience I never thought I would have to go through," Katy Titus said.

She began her job as the San Diego Model Railroad Museum’s marketing and community engagement coordinator in June, months after the museum had closed, the first time around.

The fact that the museum actually hired someone well into the pandemic was a good sign of the museum’s financial health, but using a railroad metaphor, she said "the train’s not stopping anytime soon, but we’re running low on coal.”

The Model Railroad Museum is fortunate in one unique way: a lot of the people that work here are volunteers, folks that live and breathe model railroads.

The financial hit from being closed for most of 2020 has been considerable, Titus said. Pre-pandemic, about two-thirds of the museum’s revenue came from ticket sales.

Having that financial stream suddenly go completely dry meant museum management had to get very creative, very quickly, she said.

"Our membership and development manager and our executive director have worked incredibly hard to find grants and funding opportunities, but we’re still in need of donations to close the gap from eight months of closure,” Titas said.

Of course, it’s human nature to look for silver linings in dark times, and there are some to be found in the park.

Some of the institutions in the park are taking advantage of this COVID-19 downtime to do the kind of work that’s tough when there are a lot of visitors around. For example, renovation work is going on inside the Timken Museum of Art.

And at the Model Railroad Museum, the museum’s railroad modelers are taking advantage of the time to make some serious progress on a huge project that was years in the making: Building out the last section of the mammoth Tehachapi Pass Railroad.

For now, being closed means doing things differently.

As with most of Balboa Park’s museums, the Model Railroad Museum has had to execute a quick pivot into the virtual world.

“We have two virtual exhibits, we have our online lecture series, we have member-exclusive events via zoom ... and our first-ever virtual summer camp where we had campers from Pennsylvania, Florida, California, everything in between, learning how to build a model railroad and we’ve even gone international, delivering distance learning programs to Canada," Titus said.

With news of vaccines on the horizon, plans are being made at all of Balboa Park’s museums and other attractions, to reopen.

But for now — the stunning beauty of Balboa Park makes it a great place to spend some time.

“If there’s any place centrally located in San Diego where you can safely distance and enjoy gardens and a nice day out, this is the place," Warburton said.

Even with its beloved institutions closed, Balboa Park is still the jewel of San Diego.

Listen to this story by John Carroll.

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John Carroll
General Assignment Reporter & Anchor

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI'm a general assignment reporter and Saturday morning radio anchor for KPBS. I love coming up with story ideas that aren't being covered elsewhere, but I'm also ready to cover the breaking news of the day. In addition, I bring you the local news headlines on Saturday mornings during NPR's Weekend Edition.

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