A few weeks ago, anticipating the bloom of COVID-19 in this city and contemplating the possible public closure of this Gallery, I had the naivety to think that the process of doing so, painful as it would be, might also be relatively simple: cancel some events, make some apologies, put a sign on the door and change the voice mail, then hunker down and wait three weeks for everything to return to normal. How could things possibly be more complicated than that?
In truth, it took our team a considerable chunk of time just to define what ‘shut down’ actually means, let alone actually enact it. Closing the doors to the public was only a small part. We had to shut down exhibitions, a retail operation, an art rental and sales program, a coffee shop, a vigorous event industry delivering multiple high-end weddings and signature events per week – to name just a few components. The AGH isn’t a single enterprise as much as it’s an ecosystem supporting social, educational, economic, and yes, cultural purposes, and serving citizens, artists, full/part–time/contract workers, and an array of dependent partner organizations and businesses. Yes we can shut it down, but we have to do so meticulously, trying our best to comprehend the tangle of social contracts, be they written or verbal or tacit, by which we are bound. There’s also a building, filled with more than ten thousand valuable works, all of which requires security, climate control, and regular monitoring, all of which represents a whole other universe of human connections, obligations, and interactions.
All I’m trying to point out by saying this, is that in adapting to this pandemic, all of us seem to be learning just how intensely interconnected everything is.
And shutting down was just the first part of the process. We then, as so many workers have, had to figure out a way to transplant our operation off site through a network of interconnected home offices. This guarantees a palpable experience of what blended space looks and feels like, to be on a video call, perhaps for the first time, with pets and children and untended laundry sneaking into the frame. Personally, I have never been very good at working from home; I need there to be palpable distance between me and my guitar and the refrigerator and my kids if I stand any hope of getting any work done. As I write this, I can see all of those things less than 8 feet from me.
Once that reality is negotiated, the next urgent problem appears: how does my team build a relevant, experiential public program entirely in virtual space? How do we do it if some of us hate screens, and identify as a technophobes and curmudgeons? Our programs and education team proudly works from a philosophy of gathering people together in exciting spaces to share an experience — to breathe together in a room. It’s possible to build these things online, but learning it has made a little bit of smoke come out of our ears.
And then, what about ambivalence? This feels difficult to admit, but trying to push the mission of an Art Gallery in such uncertainty can be difficult, even for us deep believers. My partner works in social service within the city’s shelter system, and everyday contends with the amplified urgency of need for those who are severely isolated, on reduced incomes, struggling with health issues — worrying about the relevance of a public art gallery can feel luxuriously off–target. To put it another way, yesterday I woke up and started reading George Monbiot in the Guardian postulate on ways current environmental crises will crash into pandemic crises. I then somehow had to turn around, sweep away the food crumbs from my laptop and try to coordinate a collection–based series of art programs for young and old?
It takes a fairly complicated bit of reasoning to find my motive – thankfully so far, I’ve been able to do so.
Last week, our CEO Shelley Falconer forwarded us an artdaily.com article, “America’s Big Museums on the hotseat”, which tried to highlight the opportunity within all this chaos for art institutions to enact fundamental change. Stop being a temple of beauty, start examining what you don’t have in your collections, reconsider your role as history writers, change what ‘art’ means. Inspiring? Yes. Motivating? Yes! Daunting? Double YES!
Also last week, a good chunk of our staff had the benefit of taking part in a webinar coordinated by Cuseum, an organization specializing in developing digital products for galleries and museums. Entitled “How to Keep your Audience Engaged, Entertained and Inspired in the age of Coronavirus” (at first I thought this title was comedic, i.e. “how to throw a party for the Apocalypse,” “how to fiddle while Rome burns,” etc.). Nonetheless, these weekly webinars have been remarkably soulful. In the discussion with Seema Rao, Senior Experience Officer @Akron Art Museum and Scott Stulen, Director and President @Philbrook Museum of Art, there was a consensus that in a moment of sudden closure, you must act quickly, be more risk-tolerant, but also be infinitely less expert, more human, more vulnerable. You can think about making change to your institution, just make sure you are doubly thinking about the health of your network, your immediate community, and yourself. And whatever you do, don’t let your insecurities devour you.
In the following weeks you will see more programming rolling out from the Gallery on this website, and through social media. These initiatives will include ways to connect you with art, artists, and ideas, ways to introduce you to new films, new discussions – ways to get you working with your hands, ways to keep you connected and supported, diverted and intrigued. It will be a learning curve for us, so please don’t hesitate with your feedback.