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Reflecting on the Recent Past and Looking at the Future Edition

The Public Viewing David’s “Coronation” at the Louvre, 1810. Louis Léopold Boilly, French

This week we should be happy: New York City has spent the last twenty-one days reopening galleries and museums. Big places like Pace and The Met, small places like Claire Oliver Gallery and Poster House; all reopening with care, keeping staff and visitors safe with protective equipment and sensible measures. Finally, we can share a real three-dimensional space with an art object in a dedicated setting, examine and learn from it in a way that engages our senses and mind.

And yet.

We can’t forget or brush away the last six months. We can’t deny the needs of the Black Lives Matter movement, the disproportionate level of illness and death that the COVID-19 virus has caused to the Black and Brown communities as well as the elderly and physically frail. We can’t forget all the workers who had to keep going even though their jobs could expose them to the virus, because some kinds of labor must be done in person.

We also can’t forget the response of art world – here’s a recap:

In the plus column:

Museums and galleries have spent six months closed, showing their collections online, learning how to interact with and retain membership and clients in new ways with varying degrees of success over this time. Exhibitions were shown online with varying degrees of success, internet memes and challenges kept fans and newbies entertained at home (Getty Challenge, anyone?). Some galleries began interview series with their artists or a field of interest, posting afterwards on Instagram and YouTube. Smaller museums did a great job of differentiating themselves at this time, with curator led chats or short lessons on art theory or practice.

In the minus column:

Museums and galleries have furloughed and fired personnel in most departments, occasionally mandated pay cuts for the best paid employees, and even tried to break union organization of lower level workers before, during and after these workers’ time at their institutions or businesses.

Museums and galleries have had their hiring practices, workplace culture, and enabling/denying activities of their highest paid or best known employees exposed to public view, often demonstrating that social standing, money, and other forms of power have allowed a corrupt and dysfunctional organization to continue on longer than it should have.

Museums that are smaller, more specialty type organizations, have lost six months of visitors, with almost no way to make that income back. They tend to be hands-on ‘experience’ institutions relying on tourism, school groups, and foot traffic to keep going so when all that stopped, they moved to internet but in many cases, it hasn’t been enough of a success to keep them open.

After all this, what will change in New York City’s museums and galleries?

Because even though the daily injustice, pain, and sheer wrongness of bias and discrimination in the arts was always loud, it took a series of other crises to get acknowledged at the level it deserved. And while it did get formally recognized in some places, many more institutions continued their willful evasions of responsibility, leading to public boycotts, cancelling, and more. But as to long lasting change, we’d have to say it depends on the desired goals of the custodians and makers of art, and their level of interest in those who actually go and look at the works.

How will institutions come back from all these events? The same way they always have: a few mea culpas, a few ‘revising our policies/setting up a committee/examining our hiring practices’, a few ‘won’t do that ever again, promise!’ Then a carefully selected set of new changes in policy or hiring that might stick around longer than one exhibition or a new curator’s contract.

But that’s only for the big institutions. Large, prestigious or well-connected museums and galleries don’t have to change quickly because people will continue to patronize them as long as there are objects and special exhibits the public wants to see. Behind the scenes issues regarding labor practices is not going to stop most people from visiting and spending money. After all, the art comes first, they say. So what if interns don’t get paid and other workers don’t earn a living wage. It’s the privilege of access to knowledge and a professional network that’s priceless! But that so called priceless is actually value-less if it just keeps bringing in the same ideas and backgrounds as fifty years ago. Knowledge is supposed to evolve and redefine itself based on new information or new methods to examine existing data. Institutions and educational facilities are aware that they must innovate and bring in new ideas and points of view for survival. Museums and galleries need to do this too before they become irrelevant to the needs and interests of a wider audience.

As for the smaller places, most of them fall into these basic categories:

  • either already had a diverse program in hiring and exhibits  
  • not been doing this but as specialty/single topic museums don’t have much in the way of budget/staff or are so small it’s all they can do to stay open with or without changes
  • will close, deaccession, or turn into a research facility of another organization because even with extra attention to their cause, it won’t be enough to stay open

That will not just be a shame, it will weaken communal memory and historical fact. Part of the cultural fabric in any city is the variety of museums and their missions, giving voice to the people who made the place what it is. Remove an opportunity to learn about a place, and you’ll find that place becoming soulless. Take away an institution like the Museum of Chinese in America, and the history of Chinatown in New York City and the United States loses meaning. You’ll never know about all the people who came here, struggled to make a living, educate their children, and achieve a success that would have been impossible for previous generations to imagine. And you’ll never know how lucky you are to live in a city that made and continues to make that possible.

In other news, we’re happy to report that the places we’ve visited so far have all made us feel welcome and safe. We’d recommend getting back to the art by visiting smaller venues first, just to see how you feel about walking into a public space. Many galleries are only letting in six visitors at a time and many request reserving a time slot for your visit. Each place’s website will give you information on what to do before and during your visit.

In the next few weeks, there will be new posts on current exhibits around town, many places are extending the shows they had back in March. The ‘Virtual Gallery Shows’ section will continue for now, it’s more than possible that some galleries may move completely to online showings, and only do IRL for private appointments and art fairs when those start up again.

Speaking of art fairs, all of them have either been cancelled or gone virtual. Asia Week New York: AUTUMN 2020 will run from September 17 – October 4 and is entirely virtual, although many of the local galleries are taking reservations for visiting. Check individual listings on the site to see more. TEFAF Online New York is live from November 1 – 4, and we’ll be keeping an eye on other fairs as they consider plans for 2021.

In addition to restarting our reviews and commentary, we’ll be posting on the Twitter account @artsgazing and on Instagram @artsgazing_nyc. They each have the aim to promote NYC arts but in the case of the Insta, will also feature original photos of the city we love. Some of the best arts moments are on the streets of NYC, and we’ll be capturing them just for you. Check them out – they’re pretty good!