Re-opening or Re-vision? Museums Evolving in a Post-Pandemic World

Our regional museum conference has been postponed, unsurprisingly, due to closures and delays around the global pandemic. The conference theme however, remains disturbingly appropriate. Working in a museum, and clearly understanding I am lucky to have a job and an income, the idea of “Museums Evolving” defines the daily experience. After weeks of closed sites and inaccessible galleries, planning has begun for the return of our guests, the chance to share our artifacts and stories, to contribute to our community, to again elicit joy and excitement, and maybe earn some revenue. But in the aftermath of the closure what we will be? Do museums simply adopt cleaning and distance requirements and resume interrupted activities? Or, as the world continues to bury its dead, do museum operations need to evolve, adjusting or transforming to accommodate the new realities of post-shutdown? How can we best utilize our assets to “share and inspire meaningful connection in a recovering world?” 

Museums have handled the shutdown in various ways. Some cut staffing, in some cases drastically, or directors and top-level staff have taken pay cuts, to save costs in an effort to survive. Others will cease to exist due to a lack of funding and support. Some closed the doors and carried on, scrambling to develop new ways to engage or build on existing assets to maintain an audience. Staff who still have jobs have been learning to video-conference, connect with digital assets to develop stories delivered on social media, producing educational content to be posted on websites, maintaining quiet but secure buildings and outdoor spaces, balancing fund-raising, and planning for financial shortfalls unlike anything ever experienced. 

In my own work I am trying to understand the next steps. In March, like many museums, we quickly built a collaborative effort that called upon the creative work of a team from archives, curatorial, programs, and marketing staff to produce digital content. We are lucky to have been supported in developing material in a new way. Ideas have been pitched by many people, not just curators, and projects have taken forms that we never had time to pursue previously: podcasts and short videos, focused on both collections items and wider ranging themes, but approached in less formal tones, interjected with humor and individual voices. The digital stories that have been shared on social media are collections-based, mostly developed in-house, and have been popular with our online audience. But as we move into planning to physically re-open, we must transition these stories somehow, and decide if they will continue, who will guide them, and how the efforts will be staffed and funded when bricks and mortar operations compete for resources and priority. 

Other museums have undertaken similar efforts, sharing or repurposing educational material for homebound visitors around the globe. This re-focus on digital engagement is an unexpected by-product of the shutdown. Directors of three prominent art museums recently suggested that the closure has allowed their institutions to see improvements in not only digital reach, but in other areas as well, such as emphasizing local audiences, improved communications, and changes in the ways their staff works–moving in directions that are collaborative, adaptable, and flexible. 

Smaller museums (those who are surviving) have experienced some of these same benefits in building digital engagement through educational programming, improving collaboration, and expanding communication, but they are also experiencing difficulties, for example in securing needed supplies. The flexibility that was so apparent in the fast decision-making around the initial shut down continues into the problem-solving that is happening around re-opening. In planning for cleaning and ensuring a continuing supply of products and safety equipment, or strengthening collaborations and developing consistent regional expectations, museums are getting creative, sharing information, and supporting new ways of working. They are evolving.

“It is likely that we and our institutions will need to take more, rather than fewer risks than formerly. We will probably have to be much more nimble and flexible to stay relevant and keep up with sudden sweeping changes. We may need to give less attention to long-term planning and more attention to a continuous process of strategic thinking.”  

Avi Decter and Ken Yellis, AASLH

While planning for the transition back to a physical place, to welcoming guests to our spaces again, a number of museum leaders are posing difficult questions about what comes next. Concerns center on how to best serve our communities and what museums should be, post-pandemic. What can we do that was not possible, or needed, before? 

A pointed question, asked by James Steward at the Princeton University Art Museum, asks how privilege comes into play: what can those of us who can (who will survive, who have financial resources), actually do? In a talk where he explores his concern for museums and the future of civic spaces, Steward explores what museums and other gathering places will become in a time of social distancing. He provides specific answers to how the current threats–both the pandemic and the economic fallout–demand something different. His suggestions include, most importantly: 1. extending institutional commitment to equity and inclusion; 2. building partnerships to overcome the digital divide; and 3. turning to collections to shape powerful stories. Steward concludes, “Beyond surviving, museums help us live,” asserting that museums serve as unique, important civic spaces, and in emphasizing our responsibilities to community-building, that museums will still provide important opportunities to gather, understand, and explore. 

To live up to this ideal, to be potentially powerful social spaces, museums must adapt. Some, like the Philbrook Museum of Art, have already started. In describing his museum’s rapid response to the changing demands brought on by COVID-19, the museum’s CEO says that there was “a realization that our mission to connect the community to art and gardens was not on pause, it was just moving to new platforms.” Similarly, the University of Michigan Museum of Art understands the potential for altered visitor behaviors as a chance to pivot. According to their director, we need to:

“re-envision our enterprise as experiences for people along a spectrum of physical and virtual environments, with the building as just one of those.” 

Tina Olsen, UMMA Director 

What does the museum experience become when guests are no longer able to physically visit, or event attendance is severely constrained by health and safety limitations? All (surviving) museums will face such challenges, whether a huge, internationally recognized art or natural history institution, a regional or campus collection, or a specialized history museum. We can no longer rely on content shaped for primarily on-site delivery. 

But our assets are not limited to our on-site exhibits and collections. Why do people visit museums? To experience our artifacts, yes, but also for our events, our buildings, our campuses, our shops, our restaurants and gathering places, our friendly and knowledgeable staff, our unique atmospheres, to find an opportunity to connect. With spaces empty of programs and galleries devoid of visitors, we risk becoming unused and irrelevant. How can we build on our assets–myriad in form–to not only remain relevant, but to help during re-opening, to move forward into whatever post-shutdown recovery looks like? 

Waiting Rooms and Other Imaginary Places

Within the limits required by the global pandemic, I am hoping to someday regain my ability to focus and move onto some research and creative work. Until that happens, or until I can get out and see something new, I am lucky to have time to look back at some pre-isolation projects. 

In 2019, in the midst of relocating to a new city, I had an opportunity to write for the artist Carol Pylant when an exhibition of her paintings opened at the Gallery Victor Armendariz in Chicago. The artist published a catalogue to accompany the show, it included essays by me and Buzz Spector. I can’t convey how powerful it was to walk out on the last day of my job of 14 years, drive to Chicago, and attend the opening of an exhibition where I was a catalogue contributor. At the event that night I was repeatedly asked a completely mundane social question, “where do you work?” The answer was surprising and gleeful: Nowhere! (which was also truthful, as I wouldn’t start my new job until the following week). Now, a little over one year later, in a world that has changed in so many unexpected ways, the essay from that catalogue has taken on new meaning. 

Although I can’t share the entire, beautiful publication online–contact the artist or the gallery to get your copy–it is a good time to share Pylant’s work again. The stillness and spaces that she represents are relevant metaphors for the current condition of the planet. We are in a global waiting period of worry, care, and loss. In this pandemic-necessitated pause where we attempt to protect ourselves, care for each other, isolate for wellness, and bury our dead, our world is transforming. The paths forward are unknown. Where will we start again after the world shuts down?

Here is my essay from the 2019 publication.

Waiting Rooms and Other Imaginary Places, in Carol Pylant: Portal Paintings 2009 – 2019

The paintings in Carol Pylant’s Portals series present quiet and formal spaces inhabited only sometimes by dogs or peacocks, statuary, or figures carved in relief. The titular portals are doorways and windows that open onto landscapes, some wooded, others lake views, some frozen, some misted, and yet others on fire. These places are gorgeously, meticulously rendered—once the artist’s process is understood they could also be appropriately described as painstakingly detailed. In this detail they are mesmerizing, but the illusion of reality that is presented is disorienting. Pylant is a tremendously skilled painter. The power of the works lies not only in their careful style, it is also in the construction of unnerving scenes that operate via a disjunction: although the pictured places are not real and the settings are simply not possible, there is a connection to a reality of some sort, as the works are based on actual places. This disconnect between the real and the imaginary is magical.

The works can be understood as stage-like. The settings show signs of age but are within indeterminate, and thus suspended, time. Certainly there is a potential for action in the emptiness of the architectural spaces, but also in the invitation offered by open windows and doorways, paths leading off into woods or views of lakes with far shores. The opportunity for exploration of the space beyond is potent, as the represented landscapes are not clean and ordered like the foreground spaces, but instead are undefined, unmarked, unidentifiable by landmarks or other distinguishing features. Some of the landscapes have clear paths presented, others have no clear entry discernible, but all provide a marked contrast to the symmetry, quiet, and weight of the architectural spaces.

Carol Pylant, The Path

What is represented is not the simplistic dichotomy of outside/inside or nature/culture. These architectural spaces are places that Pylant has seen or visited or lived. The same is true with the landscapes: North Carolina, Ireland, Spain, Italy, and Wisconsin. The personal experience is here made real, not simply the act of visiting and remembering these places, but in connecting them, overlapping them, collaging them together to form something new, something different than a memory. As a mash up of former residences and travels, the paintings become a visualization of the act of remembering, of mental life. More than just locations, they are a map of experiences, lived and seen. What breaks the dichotomy and launches the works beyond a simple matchup of disconnected architecture and landscape is the sense of waiting, of impending action or unspoken words that permeate the represented spaces. Not a nostalgia for lost places, but rather the potential for narrative and its related act of sense-making is what is conveyed by the works: what and how we remember, how we make connections, the stories we create as our minds leap between seemingly disparate elements, places, and things; how the very activity of accounting or chronicling makes memory and shapes it into useful bits.

Carol Pylant, Eternal Spring

These are not simply pictures from the artist’s memory, postcards or souvenirs of world travel. Rather, the paintings are sites where memory and place are put to work and utilized for altogether different purposes. Where are these places? In Pylant’s memory they are tied to distinct experiences. But what do they mean, how can they function, for anyone other than the artist? When represented so distinctly, when combined unexpectedly, these disparate locations lose their individual identities and become resting places, temporary holds, places where time is suspended, where stories can be formulated. They are transitional spaces, the boundary between the formal and the unkempt, the ordered and the wild, the confined and the free. They are specific enough for a viewer to imaginatively inhabit, but have just enough disruption to generate unease and thus a desire to get moving.

What is intriguing about the work is why an artist would be interested in representing liminal spaces. In the choice of not telling a specific story, but creating instead spaces where narrative can be formulated, Pylant reveals something about herself. As a teacher she created very real spaces for her students to develop their own storytelling techniques; perhaps these settings were created to make space for her own personal acts of remembering and understanding. In the disconnect between the aging archways, carved figures, checkerboard floors and quiet dogs, the dense woods or open bays and distant hills, Pylant uncovers the opportunity to engage quietly, the option for thoughtfulness, and calm consideration. She represents pause, which is here exposed as an inhabitable place, attractive, and rich with potential.

Carol Pylant, Artigas Spring (detail)

Finding Connections

After a second move in less than two years, I again live in borderlands. Not the international or continental boundaries of my childhood, but in an overlap of industrial and urban space. Situated at a confluence of rail lines, shipping canals, and a state highway, I spend time in pandemic-isolation across from a gas station and a cement terminal, looking out over drawbridges, an EPA site, and in the distance, downtown Milwaukee.  

We moved with short notice just before the city shut down. Unpacking during the early days of the stay-at-home order, and so soon after the previous move, was a slightly nauseating and unexpectedly exhausting task. The new place felt alien. Just another box to live in, without surrounding greenspace, but clean at least, and with windows. 

After a couple of weeks of rearranging we finally got to unpack the art–a revelation! Unwrapping, placing, and finally hanging or situating these objects brought a release and relief that was unexpected. The boxy space became a home, and not just any home, my (our) home. Luckily I am now working from this home. 

While unpacking, trying to correspond via email, obsessively following shared social and news sites, participating in online meetings–both for work and for happy hours–the contact I have been making is distant, digital, and mediated. Like probably most people on the planet, I miss the physical. I look forward to again going for coffee, meeting friends for music or meals, traveling to see distant family, and visiting the grocery store without feeling on the edge of panic. 

The other thing I am desperately missing is seeing art. I am a fan of physical objects. I love looking at the materials, seeing how they are worked, thinking about why the substances behave the way they do, considering what the artists were trying to accomplish, and attempting to understand just when the object moves outside of the artist’s intention and becomes something more. Some people watch movies, others go to shooting ranges. I visit galleries and museums and studios because looking at stuff makes me happy. But what is there to see when the world shuts down?

The choices seem to be peeking into the windows of closed galleries, searching #virtualartexhibition, or catching up on my reading. One example that I haven’t been able to share yet (due to the unexpected relocation) is Stolen Sisters, which was on view in February at the Crossman Gallery at the UW-Whitewater here in Wisconsin. Although I wrote about it in the last issue of the New Art Examiner, the topic of the exhibition remains heartbreakingly relevant. Having another opportunity to bring attention to it and the artists included is an easy decision. Checking out their work is especially important now, as with galleries closed and fairs postponed, artists everywhere need support.

Having only digital access to art is difficult. After days of online meetings, the additional screen time is a hard sell for me. But finding connections, or at least looking for them, during pandemic-mandated distancing, turns out to be an essential activity. I am lucky to have art in my home that I look at frequently. Why? Color and texture, connection, memory, meaning. With the computer turned off the paintbrushes and the sketchbooks may lie dormant, but the things on the walls give the space interest. They enliven the experience and raise my spirits during a strange and difficult time.