On Chapel Street, the Yale University Art Gallery and Yale Center for British Art’s empty galleries invite only the distant, sterile click of a security guard’s boots and the stilled, vacant gazes of portraits without an audience. The YUAG and YCBA closed along with the University nearly eight months ago and have since only had a brief reopening at the beginning of the semester. An on-campus spike of COVID-19 shut them down again in October.
These closures are not unique to New Haven. COVID-19 launched museums around the world into crisis due to evaporated ticket sales, forced closures and staff layoffs. The National Gallery in London, which notably kept its doors open even through the turmoil of World War II, has been closed for over 100 days. Similarly storied institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Vatican Museums have also made historic closures.
The pivot to digital spaces, alongside the recent protests for racial justice, have forced museums all over the country to think more critically about what they are and who they are for. The YUAG and YCBA have been grappling with their positionalities in New Haven and against a global backdrop of museums re-assessing their collections.
Instead of understanding digital initiatives as substitutes for an in-person art viewing experience, many curators see them as an entirely different medium. Clicking through a series of photos cannot recreate what Molleen Theodore, the associate curator of programs at the YUAG, refers to as the “erratic encounter,” or what John Giurini, assistant director for public affairs at the Getty Museum, calls the “contemplative moment” of looking at art in the same physical space. It is difficult to express the true scale or precise tactility of an object over a Zoom tile; the virtual space divorces the body from the viewing, curators said.
“When you encounter a work in person, you automatically have the feeling of ‘I’m in a relationship to this object,’” Roksana Filipowska, the programs and outreach manager of the Wuertle Study Center at the YUAG, explained. “Maybe the scale is massive and you feel small, or maybe the object is small and you feel like you’re overpowering it, or maybe it’s exactly on your eye level. You are very aware of your body, while virtually, it’s easy to be disembodied.”
Many museums have not fully explored the possibilities of the digital realm. When lockdown first occurred, most institutions scrambled to transfer their collections online. Additionally, different institutions have different goals. The Yale galleries, for example, are primarily teaching institutions. Thus, their main goal has been to support professors in collecting teaching courses rather than assembling virtual tours or other exploratory media.
Created in March by curators Barbara Pollack and Anne Verhallen, Art At A Time Like This, ATLT, is a self-proclaimed “online artspace” that has managed to capitalize on the current moment and innovate a space beyond museums and art fairs. Completely not-for-profit and free for all audiences, the project’s website hosts global exhibitions with international artists.
“We could have an immediate response to what’s going on in the news. If I read something in the news on Tuesday, by Wednesday we could have an artist responding to that,” said Pollack. “The beauty of the internet is that we were able to secure works by top artists from all over the world, because all they needed to do was send a JPEG. They didn’t have to ship a work, they didn’t have to think about how long it would be on loan for — it’s up in perpetuity.”
However, they both pointed out that they don’t think ATLT replaces the museum experience. “There are paintings I miss when I don’t see them in the museum context,” Pollack told me, taking a drag from her cigarette. “I’m old fashioned in that way.”
Instead, they wanted to offer an additional way to view art. Although their projects initially took an entirely virtual format, ATLT found a way to incorporate an in-person, socially distant, element through their exhibition entitled “Ministry of Truth: 1984/2020” — a collection of billboards scattered around New York City that can be viewed like a scavenger hunt. While ATLT’s public street art vision is hinged upon accessibility, they are also uploading videos of billboard-passersby to emphasize the symbiotic relationship between real-life and virtual viewership.
Visit their website and you’ll find an interactive map marking out each billboard. You’re encouraged to go on a self-guided tour — start from the middle if you want — and look out for billboards conflating photos, graffiti and tally-marks. “DISSENTS SPEAK TO A FUTURE AGE,” declares one on Webster Avenue and Belmont Street. Another, in Brooklyn, depicts a man piggy-backing a boy in the water, shoes laced around his neck.
The YUAG and YCBA have curated a wide range of digital presentations. In addition to talks from featured artists, the gallery streams conversations between YUAG curators and museums around the world. A recent one, moderated by James Green, the Frances and Benjamin Benenson Foundation assistant curator of African Art at the YUAG, featured a dialogue between museum professionals from Zimbabwe and Namibia. The gallery’s furniture study center, as well as its prints and drawing center, have led close-looking programs where the audience examines a singular object with a museum guide.
The biggest difference many museums are seeing with their virtual programs is in the scope of their reach, both in terms of numbers and geography. “[At the YUAG,] on Wednesdays, pre-COVID, we would have these talks in the galleries and they would focus on a specific theme or a single object, and maybe 15 or 20 people could come on this talk,” Theodore said. “[These e-gallery talks] have been viewed by 400 or 500 people on Instagram.”
Not only is the reach greater in terms of sheer numbers, these digital initiatives are seeing a lot more global engagement from audience members overseas, from Latin America to Europe to Africa. The YUAG has even shifted the times of their programs earlier so as not to exclude individuals from different time zones from attending, Theodore said.
Indeed, the greatest advantage to museums’ online shift has been improving accessibility. The option of asynchronous learning offers greater flexibility for students with different socioeconomic, geographic, and learning backgrounds. Museums that typically have admission fees are offering entirely free programs. Logging onto an online program is an easy and risk-free way to interact with art.
“Often in bigger museums, people feel intimidated to walk into the space and have a feeling of needing to know a lot about contemporary art in order to have an opinion or in order to feel a certain way or to be moved in a certain way by an artwork,” Verhallen added. “I think when you are at home or when you are looking at a website, it is much easier for you to find your own opinion or some emotion that is triggered by seeing a work.”
But this accessibility has not extended to everyone. Museums haven’t developed the infrastructure to gather information about whether more traditionally underrepresented groups have attended their new virtual programming. Board members and donors along with works in the galleries still tell an overwhelmingly white, European story, at a moment when there are widespread movements for racial justice.
“Virtual programs will not save us,” Damon Reaves, interim senior curator of education at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, said. “It is merely a new form. Questions like ‘Whose voices are being amplified? What stories are we telling? How can we better represent a greater diversity of experiences?’ need equal consideration in order to create lasting change.”
VIRTUAL ALONE WILL NOT SAVE US
One of the baseline internal improvements being undertaken in most major institutions is greater diversity and equity training for staff members — from the level of volunteers all the way up to their boards. The YUAG and YCBA have both committed to working with their guides to present objects in a way that is more relevant to local communities. In addition to diversity training, Linda Friedlaender, head of education at the YCBA, explained that “[the YCBA has] done a much better job of disassembling the hierarchy of jobs at the museum” than ever before.
“Instead of meetings being just exhibition curators, Courtney [Martin GRD ’09, the director of the YCBA,] has opened the meeting up to virtually the entire staff,” Friedlaender said. “Come and hear what the proposals are, let’s talk about them. Which ones interest you? Which ones do you not see as being able to touch people?”
Although the organizational structure of museums is evolving, Art At A Time Like This introduces a system radically different from museums. Without having to get approval from a board or sell an exhibition idea to a curator, they create more intimate relationships with artists and with viewers. In fact, many of the artists that ATLT has worked with have signed petitions or withdrawn their works from museums because they took political issue with their institutions.
“Artists trusted us — that’s the big thing,” curator Pollack notes. “Museums are often sites of political struggle right now, and so they are not neutral spaces. People trust them less and less.”
But museums are recognizing their shortcomings as well, and cross-sectional work between departments has been crucial to projects of reinterpretation. The YCBA has been tasked with the particularly complicated duty of balancing the entirely inherited private collection with painful representations of people of color and women. One way they are doing this is by leveraging the wall texts. While rewriting the label copy for the gallery, Friedlaender said that the curatorial department will ask the education department for their opinions on labels. She said, “[The museum wants] to redo a lot of the labels so that they are more honest, so that they give different kinds of information about the objects that have never been given before.”
The Getty Museum in Los Angeles faces a similar problem because their inherited collection is primarily pre-1900s Western European works. However, they have created new narratives from the collection by situating existing works in different contexts. One such exhibit focused on images of King Balthazar in Medieval and Renaissance art. “It showed how over the course of time, Balthazar was first represented as a white male and eventually as a Black, African king,” Giurini said.
Other moves of reinterpretations take place outside the gallery. Two years ago, the National Gallery in London had their first conscious purchase of a painting by a female artist, Artemisia Gentelleschi. “Rather than showing it in a conventional way, [the gallery] toured it around the United Kingdom, not to museums but to places where the picture could make a difference with a small amount of people,” Caroline Campbell, director of collections and research at the National Gallery, said. “It went to the women’s library in Glasgow, it went to a doctor’s surgery in Pocklington in Yorkshire, it went to a girl’s school in Newcastle in the northeast of England, a women’s prison in South of London and to a library in inner-city London too.”
This tour presented a radically different approach to expanding the reach of art, one where instead of waiting for groups to come to the museum, the museum brought art to them. The National Gallery pursued a similar project during lockdown through increased virtual flexibility.
“Our civic spaces all over the world have been empty. We worked with an advertising company who provided digital platforms, pro-bono free, to be able to put huge blown up images of great art from our collection in unexpected places such as on the motorway, in the center of a narrow deserted street, outside a shopping center,” Campbell recalled.
Another way to retool a given collection, while deliberately engaging with questions of representation, is by tailoring it to fit the needs of the local community. The YCBA has conducted multiple focus groups with New Haven teachers to get a better sense of what would be most useful for them when teaching their students. From there, they put together two notable initiatives which aim to build lasting, collaborative connections between students and museums.
The first initiative gets museums in town with arts organizations to assemble bags of art supplies since, in this virtual landscape, many students don’t have materials to make art at home. The second project involves the Henry Moore and Bill Brant exhibition on show at the YCBA.
“The museum is going to buy students their own digital cameras,” Friedlaender said. “The curators are offering workshops after school, on the weekends, in photography. Then we are going to conclude by having them submit, and we will have a display of photographs that these students take.” The workshops will offer a way to teach about curated works in a way that the students can directly engage with. After learning about a particular technique used by Brant, they can then experiment with similar methods in their own photographs. These efforts reveal that art is not just contained in the moment of looking, but it also involves building close ties between individuals and the works they are viewing.
Museums are considering how to synthesize virtual programming with the in-person experience. The YUAG is already planning on incorporating iPads into next year’s programming, as they have found them to aid close-looking. YUAG employee Filipowska relates an anecdote about a professor who taught a Directed Studies class about the Hoppin Krater, an Ancient Greek vase that depicts scenes from the Oresteia tragedies. By zooming in on high-definition photos, Matheson discovered details about the furies on the vase that she had never seen before. “There has been tremendous academic debate [about one of the furies]: ‘Is she holding a spear, or is this just a crack on this krater?’” Flipowska said. “We were actually able to say, ‘Yes, this is definitely a spear.’”
Before the coronavirus pandemic, the National Gallery featured an augmented reality project that places a Florentine altarpiece from the 1370s back into its original context of a destroyed church. Their app allows in-person viewers to move seamlessly between a physical gallery wall and a digital space that recreates the work as hanging in the church. “[Artworks] aren’t just the stories they tell hanging in the gallery space,” Campbell said. “They all have histories and they all have pasts.”
Digital spaces offer museums an opportunity for rapid experimentation. While in-person exhibitions could take years to arrange, it takes a fraction of the time and cost to organize a virtual exhibition, Giurini said.
The Getty has already hosted a LGBTQ+ history month exhibition, which combined works from the Getty and the Getty Research Institute to rearticulate the meaning behind the colors of the pride flag. “That’s not something we would put together [for the galleries,] but we had this opportunity and said, ‘Let’s do something for Pride history month that’s unique and interesting,’” Giurini said.
For the YUAG and YCBA, beyond just ways of viewing art, Filipowska hopes that this experience with Zoom will help reshape the way that we think about giving students greater choice. “I would love in the future to change the conversation around mental health and mental health days and maybe there will be an option for the student, if they work it out with the professor, in addition to in-person class, the student can log onto Zoom and do something asynchronously,” Filipowska said.
Curators hope this greater awareness will translate into all aspects of art viewing and teaching.“Before I had always thought about giving space for personal reflection between jumping into comment, but Zoom really encourages this,” Sydney Simon, Bradley assistant curator of academic affairs at the YUAG, said. “Zoom really slows the conversation down. It’s such a good reminder that people process things in different ways, that people feel comfortable expressing themselves in different ways.”
The gap between normalcy and life as defined by COVID-19 continues to stretch. There are both remarkable moments of quiet and turbulence. Our critical self-reflective moment lies in the space between where we end and the art emerges — and now, it also lies between us and our computer screens.
Correction, Nov. 26: An earlier version of this article misspelled the surname of Damon Reaves, the interim senior curator of education at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The News regrets this error.