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COVID-19 has presented one challenge after another to cultural institutions, and the Louis Armstrong House Museum, located in Queens, New York’s Corona neighborhood, is no exception. The lovely site was off-limits for around 18 months before reopening last July.
But during the interim, executive director Regina Bain and her staff, including director of research operations Ricky Riccardi, developed a slew of online offerings that allowed them to continue their mission to introduce and educate music lovers of every stripe about a true American genius’ life and art.
“It’s been a momentous couple of years,” Bain admits. “The pandemic has definitely made us stretch.”
Their efforts are about to pay off in a big way. The Louis Armstrong Center, across the street from the home where Armstrong lived with his wife Lucille from 1943 until his death in 1971, is scheduled to debut in the coming months, complete with a 75-seat performance venue and an exhibition curated by jazz pianist Jason Moran. Meanwhile, a new, free Louis Armstrong House Museum app created by Bloomberg Philanthropies is letting people from around the globe take a virtual tour through the space and sample the Armstrong archive, consisting of more than 60,000 items — the largest collection of its type for any jazz musician.
Riccardi hopes some of the more than 140,000 people who’ve visited the museum virtually in the past year-plus will be inspired by the app to stop by in person. “It’s a whole new ball game for us,” he says.
The archives opened to the public at Queens College circa 1994, and in 2003, the two-bedroom, 3,000 square-foot house, which Lucille willed to the City of New York after her 1983 passing, became a museum. “Things were pretty consistent for a few years,” Riccardi notes. “But then, in 2016, we got a $2.7 million grant from the Fund II Foundation to digitize our entire collection. The web site launched in 2018, and that made the archives accessible to the whole world.” Construction began on the Louis Armstrong Center that same year.
In March 2020, the rise of COVID-19 put the institution’s future at risk. “We’re a house museum, an intimate space, and Corona was an epicenter during the pandemic,” Bain points out unironically. “We closed for a year and a half in compliance with safety protocols, because we wanted to keep our staff and our community safe.” Not that anyone was idle. Shortly after the shutdown, the museum launched “That’s My Home,” a virtual exhibit site that’s now published more than 100 posts about Armstrong’s life in Queens and beyond. That was followed by “Armstrong Now,” which looks forward. “We commission contemporary Black artists to do research in the house and archives, and to create new works, including films,” Bain says. “Making films wasn’t in our wheelhouse before, but now it’s critical for arts organizations.”
The app, powered by Bloomberg Connects, provides an entry point to discover the museum’s riches, Riccardi notes. “You can go through it room by room. There’s a map, historic photos and artifacts you can zoom in on — hundreds and hundreds of them. But there’s also audio from the reel-to-reel tapes he made and so much more. The possibilities are endless. It’s another way to reach folks around the world in this incredible new digital landscape.”
As for the Center, Bain hopes it will be ready for visitors in time to celebrate both of Armstrong’s birthdays — the July 4, 1900, date he always mentioned in interviews and August 4, 1901, the one on his birth certificate. In her words, “I think it will be a Louis Armstrong summer.” — Michael RobertsImages of Louis Armstrong provided by Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Louis Armstrong House Museum