Toilet paper and disinfectant flew off the shelves, Americans began taking the notion of personal space more seriously, and the nation started locking down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, art museums, along with other cultural institutions, also shut their doors, uncertain as to when they would ever reopen them.
Works of art in gilded frames hung in darkness, staring out into galleries with nothing illuminated but the glowing EXIT signs. There were no guests to snap a photo of an exhibition, read a plaque, or stand “too close” to a painting. The galleries were like graveyards.
These institutions began scrambling to find ways to bring art to the people without compromising safety.
“How would we become a useful distraction? How would we provide resources for families, how would we provide inspiration and things of true beauty, and social spaces?” recalled Rand Suffolk ’90, the director of the High Museum of Art, in Atlanta, Georgia.
“We’re an institution about ‘place’ that wants to put people in direct contact with art.”
On March 22, 2020, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms of Atlanta signed a 14-day stay-at-home order for the city, following the lead of cities all across America, forcing the High and other museums to find a way to bring people together virtually.
Museums like the High began the work of exhibiting in the virtual space, trading textured paint strokes for colorful pixels on our screens. Art has long needed to become more accessible. Before the pandemic, museums’ online offerings were limited, with little beyond social media accounts and websites that offered teacher programs and exhibition information but not much in terms of digital exhibitions or online programming.
At first, museum staffers would spend hours scenario building, creating solutions that briefly seemed possible, before new challenges would arise and they’d have to start over. “The first few months were like a laboratory.” The High relied on their website and social media to share content with their audience and increased their video and social content considerably, seeing a 560% boost in views on YouTube and gaining around 7,000 more followers on Facebook and Instagram in just the first six months of the pandemic. They created dozens of different Zoom backgrounds based on different art collections for people to download and use during their own meetings.
“I’ve been an art museum director for 23 years—during 9/11’s aftermath and the ’08 financial crisis,” Suffolk said. “I don’t think anyone could have been prepared for what we went through this time around. [It was] a sort of slow-burning, high-intensity crisis that was difficult to get our heads around.”
But now that vaccines are available, and museum-goers expect to return, despite the spread of the Delta variant, will the digital art experience be scaled back?
“We all want to get back to normal,” Suffolk said. “The High reopened in July 2020, and our attendance is now close to what it was pre-COVID. We’re going through a process of editing and trying to figure out what work we launched online that we still want to keep. There are a few things with lasting impact that we want to keep 18 months from now, two years from now, with our evolving audience. There are certain segments of our audience that [online programming] makes more sense for.”
The High’s audience skews younger, with 80% of their audience last year under 55 and 70% under 45.
“We want online programs that are compelling for our older audience. Some people can’t travel, and being able to have programming online will continue to be important to us. During the pandemic, we started to create a new digital platform to launch this fall that is a digital publication 2.0. It will not only be exhibition content but also graphics, videos—a more robust approach that will be an evergreen platform and library over time.”
Karen Haas ’78 is the curator of the Lane Collection at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where she oversees a large permanent collection of photographic work. Haas says that prior to the pandemic, the MFA would not have been described as cutting-edge in terms of its use of technology to bring art to wider audiences. While the MFA had a social media presence and a website, their archives of work had not always been so readily available on the web.
“We don’t have a huge online presence as a department, but as a museum we’re getting the word out and getting much better about that public face, with online tours and virtual walk-throughs,” Haas said.
“We’re certainly behind many museums in being capable of that on a regular basis, but we’re doing a lot more video—including video on our website and using video as a regular part of presenting our exhibitions.”
It is a fresh challenge to create new exhibitions without work from other museums. Haas goes on to mention the difficulties with loaning art at the moment and how curators have begun to reconsider the museum’s permanent collection: “We can’t loan across the world [right now], so we’re looking at our permanent collections in a whole new way and thinking about local artists in new ways and thinking about how to keep new people coming back.”
While the pandemic threatened to shut down many museums, it has also, in some ways, created an opportunity for regional artists to showcase their work, Haas explained, pointing to mixed-media artist Ekua Holmes, whose installation Radiant Community is part of a larger show titled Garden for Boston. The show is led by Holmes and artist Elizabeth James-Perry. Radiant Community features a field of sunflowers that are used as a statement of hope, facing Holmes’ own historically Black Boston neighborhood. The museum hosted three digital events in the spring focused on the intersections between Black and Indigenous histories in Boston. The series culminated in a conversation between the two artists featured. The exhibition is bringing in new and diverse audiences in a way that thrills the museum and Haas.
“It’s been great to watch children and families enjoy that art even if they’re not really coming inside. It’s a powerful symbol to see that beauty and all those people outside,” Haas said.
Showcasing art in a digital space brings new voices to the museum world. “We might be talking about the same exhibition and we can bring colleagues from all over the world to talk about the objects.”
On their website, Zoom’s “About” section states that they envision a world where their platform empowers people to connect and accomplish more. At the Museum of Fine Arts, Zoom is allowing for people from all over to get together and engage in conversations they otherwise may not have been part of.
For an industry that mainly relies on physical presence, a move into the digital space has been a shift.
Haas doesn’t believe that a totally online museum is the right move for the MFA, which reopened in early February, but she thinks that it definitely enables accessibility for those currently unable to return to the Museum in person.
“It’s been disappointing that our number of visitors is so much lower. In any given year, we would have a huge percentage of visitors coming from Japan, as the MFA has the greatest collection of Japanese art outside of Japan, but here is a whole group unable to come. It inspires us to think very creatively about how to get access and visibility to [those who can’t return right now].”
The MFA in Boston has planned on another year of online programming for those unable to visit the museum’s physical space. “Even if we [now have in-person visitors], our sense is that we will be Zooming people in for some time.”