Restorative, communicative, and hopeful in a crumbling world

Struggling to find my voice as the country disintegrates. Not confident that I should write at all, as words seem futile in the midst of state-sanctioned violence. The attacks–both the direct brutality of uniformed thugs and the indirect aggression of massive leadership failure–leave me scared and angry. But what about the activity that I always turn to, what about the act of looking, what about artistic practice? Where does art making fit into this crumbling world? 

I have written about Nirmal Raja’s work previously, and now she is working on another really interesting project she calls Feeble Barriers. The work is intimate and ambitious, beautiful and wrenching. The creation of these new delicate objects has unfolded on Instagram and the entire body of work created so far is on view at the Grove Gallery during July 2020.

Nirmal Raja, Feeble Barriers

The artist has posted a short video about the current installation, and she was interviewed about the work by the UW Center for Design and Material Culture. The project is on-going, as Raja continues to gather thoughts from medical professionals across the globe who are working in pandemic response. As a daily practice, the artist stitches their words onto delicate face masks constructed of sheer cotton organdy. The individual pieces are ghosts of personal protective equipment, their fragile structure bearing the worry that pours from mouths that are hopefully shielded by more functional barriers. 

The resulting work is thoughtful and terrifying. So far, 75 masks have been made. There is desperation in the words from these frontline workers: they speak of racial inequalities, personal fears, and societal dangers. These are individuals who are committed to saving our lives, here they describe the personal, tragic impact of the pandemic.

The fragility of these masks suggests a profound contradiction: the very idea that protecting life takes only a piece of fabric. It is a humbling thing. So easy an action–wearing a mask–makes its refusal confounding. A small thing to ask, the fabric placed between you and me. There are people selling useless masks on Etsy–crocheted items that in their creation mock the deaths and losses the world is enduring. Such action raises the specter of what exactly is it that is feeble here? The sheer cotton organdy, the fragility of over-stressed medical frontlines, the actual PPE, or the fact that any controversy exists at all about the use of masks to prevent the spread of an airborne virus? 

Raja’s use of delicate handwork to represent healthcare workers’ personal experiences is powerful, yet it is frustrating in its existence. It is devastating that we need work like this. But in her choice of a close and time-consuming method like hand-stitching, this artist honors the dedication of the medical professionals who are trying every day to save our lives. This project demands attention to their (and our) plight. 

Nirmal Raja, Feeble Barriers

Another exhibit, at The Warehouse in Milwaukee, presents a different kind of connection during this period of isolation. On display into October, I Am A Story: Self-Portraits provides an opportunity to see a variety of faces, an activity that I found surprisingly refreshing after weeks of mostly online interactions.

Many artists are included. Carol Pylant’s representation of the intense stare of a tension-ridden younger self, and Richard Diebenkorn’s drypoint face made from lines that divide the plate into discrete areas like those in his landscape paintings, provide contemplative relief. Della Wells is represented with a painted and collaged side-glance self-portrait commissioned for the exhibit. Pat Steir inserts herself into art history as Caravaggio’s Medusa and Rembrandt in a Cap, and Ann Hamilton presents herself as gorgeously obscured.

This is a really nice show to visit, although with very little interpretation available the experience is limited to looking and responding rather than learning anything about these artists and their representational choices. But that’s exactly what I needed right now, a chance to see some new faces and think about something other than my four walls and the crumbling world.  

Restorative, communicative, hopeful. The physical experience of looking allows access to other people–through their handmade objects or their representations of self–at a time when distance is required for personal safety. Human connection is worth pursuing right now, and saving. Despite the terror, the anger, and the fear, we have to keep trying. It may be a struggle to get through every day, but acknowledging what we have and reminding ourselves what we fight for, continues to be a vital effort.  

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?