Nestled in a ghost town en route to Death Valley National Park, The Goldwell Open Air Museum has attracted artists and art lovers from all over the world since it opened in the 1980s. In the last five years alone, Goldwell has hosted around 75 artists in its residency program and other initiatives, including The Bullfrog Biennial in 2019. 

In 1984, when Belgian artist Albert Szukalski came to the desert, he coined the name of the museum by playing on the term Wellington Load, an old gold mine claim in the area. He brought a number of Belgian artists with him over the years. Slowly, a place so lovingly named and nurtured became a meeting place for artists who took inspiration from the desert and its comforting silence. They created imposing art pieces like the Pink Lady, The Ghost Rider, The Prospector, The Last Supper and more.

“The Last Supper,” made in 1984 by the late Albert Szukalski, Goldwell’s founder, is set in front of a wide view of the Mojave Desert. Photo: Sarah Russell

Today, Goldwell runs on the strength of volunteers and artists who register for residencies. And this art space is feeling the brunt of the pandemic. Over a phone call, Executive Director Suzanne Hackett-Morgan said the pandemic situation and social distancing have thrown a wrench in the facility’s already lean operations. The museum generates an annual income of about $50,000. However, that income depends on money from visitors. In the last month alone the museum lost about 100 visitors, based on Hackett-Morgan’s estimation of phone calls they received from people making queries. In normal times, Goldwell gets around 500 visitors per month. In mid-March, a nearby tour company stopped offering Jeep and bus tours when the extent of the pandemic became clear to everyone, and the national park is closed.

Swiss artist Sofie Siegmann made “Sit Here!” in 2000. It was installed and restored at Goldwell in 2007. Photo: Sarah Russell

Currently, the outdoor facility is open. The indoor facility—where visitors used to buy artwork, souvenirs, and merchandise—is fully closed. Another challenge Goldwell is facing at the moment is that Richard Stephens, artist and volunteer museum host, can no longer work. At 73, he’s in the at-risk-for-COVID-19 age group. So, the museum is looking for new staff members and enough funds to retain them.

The museum is also taking these steps: 

  • Applying for $5,000 in Nevada Arts Council funding at the end of April
  • Rolling out a new program to help with operating costs like staffing, utilities, insurance, and a new tour guide—ideally from neighboring Beatty 
  • Applying for funding in July for artist residencies through NAC’s Arts Learning Express Grants 
  • Looking into small business loans for new staffing
  • Putting a temporary hold on the artists’ residency, which Hackett-Morgan said has been going since 2007 and is a highly successful initiative
  • Releasing a movie on Goldwell and its philosophy to promote the museum and raise funds
  • Eventually introducing student internships 

As bad as the pandemic situation is, according to Hackett-Morgan, this has forced her to think about the big picture, about issues of the long-term sustainability. “We will have to keep running this beautiful facility in a way that it can sustain itself,” she said, with her gravity-defying optimism. “I think Goldwell is bigger than all of us. I think we will be OK.”

Posted by Sudhiti Naskar

Sudhiti Naskar is a journalist and researcher who likes to tell stories through multimedia. Her work has appeared in BBC, The Wall Street Journal, The National, The Caravan and more. She's also the author of the book Tsunami, Waves that Shook The World.