Museums are finding new ways to connect with art lovers online during quarantine


justin camp

Animal Crossing: New Horizons, 2020. Photo by Sarah Waldorf. Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum.

As the art world reels from the COVID-19 outbreak, institutions around the world are doing their best to bridge the social distancing divide with online initiatives. As galleries and fairs push online viewing rooms and advances in virtual reality to keep collectors engaged, museums face a very different set of challenges. They attempt to simulate not only the experience of viewing art, but also the sense of activism and belonging that museums can cultivate in their communities through countless activities and initiatives. Institutions around the world are taking creative approaches to recreating the museum experience at home.

Some institutions have focused on programming exhibitions taking full advantage of the possibilities offered by the virtual space. The Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow, for example, has launched aself-isolation platform” which brings together the various digital initiatives of the museum in a comprehensive catalog. There are guided tours of the exhibit, Soundcloud mixes, and passages of prose and critical theory alongside native all-digital exhibits hosted on the museum. Digital Garage Platform. The museum also uses its TikTok page to share an ongoing horror-movie-style saga filmed around its empty building that uses the app’s first-person perspective for low-budget thrills.

李维伊(LI Weiyi), 此刻 (The Continuous Moment)2020. Courtesy of the artist and the New Museum.

“WE=LINK:十个小品 Ten Easy Pieces”, 2020. Courtesy of New Museum

While the Garage Museum’s self-isolation platform combines new and old projects, the New Museum, with its “First Look: New Art Online” program, commissions new digital works perfectly suited to the age of the self -isolation, in collaboration with Rhizome. The latest project,We=Link: ten easy pieces”, is a partnership with the Chronus Art Center in Shanghai and presents 10 digital works by artists from around the world, ranging from abstract renderings like that of aaajiao PAPULE (2020) to sharp meditations on health and the Commonwealth like those of Tega Brain and Sam Lavigne Get well quickly! (2020).

“When you are isolated to observe social distancing mandates and many people are already telecommuting and working from home, networking becomes so obviously essential and indispensable,” said Zhang Ga, curator at the Chronus Art Center who curated the exhibition. Virtual. Zhang hopes “We=Link” will inspire visitors to think critically about the structures that have allowed life – and art – to continue online. “We hope that this ad hoc venture will allow us to develop a sustainable model of institutional collaboration and to strengthen net art as a fundamental artistic medium at the heart of discourse and as a critique of our ubiquitous networked society.”

泰佳 布莱恩 & 山姆 拉文 (Tega Brain & Sam Lavigne), 快点好起来! (Recover quickly!)2020. Courtesy of the artists and the New Museum.

While some museums exploit the digital sphere in search of curatorial opportunities, others seek to capitalize on the social dimensions of the Internet to simulate the community functions of museums. On March 28, MoMA PS1 hosted the “Come together (apart)“online festival, an expanded (if isolated) version of the music festival and record fair originally planned at the art center this weekend. The festival brought together live DJ sets, documentary screenings, remote film conferences and virtual workshops. Even the record-breaking part of the festival has found an online equivalent with an organized fair hosted on Bandcamp.

The Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art took a similar idea and expanded it to weekly programming as part of the “Online Commonsa digital hub that acts as an extension of the museum’s in-person community space, the Commons. The Commons Online hosts a variety of workshops and group events, most often taking place on Instagram Live. These included a virtual fashion show featuring young designers, live streams of guided meditation, drag queen stories, structured activities and craft guides for families.

MCA Family Day: Junk Monster attendees, 2020. Photo by Natasha Mustache. Courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.

“How culture is affected by this moment will be confirmed not just over the next few months, but over the next year,” said Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan, director of content strategy at MCA Chicago. “The work we do now builds on a solid foundation that MCA had long before COVID-19. Art is a powerful tool for self-expression and self-reflection; it is also capable of creating meaningful connections between people and communities.

Elsewhere, institutions have embraced their role as agents of community-driven activism, turning digital reach into a vehicle for action. Last month, the Poster House museum in New York published “Coronavirus: Stories from Chinatown,” a series of video interviews with Chinatown residents and shop owners detailing the effects of COVID-19 on their lives and livelihoods. The tender, often heartbreaking interviews are the result of quick thinking on the part of the museum. After closing on March 10, Poster House staff reached out to author Grace Young to help expand programming for the museum’s exhibition “The Sleeping Giant” – which focused on economic relations between China and the rest of the world – to examine the economic impacts the virus was having on Chinese Americans in New York.

Photo by Grace Young from “Coronavirus: Chinatown Stories”, Episode 1, 2020. Courtesy of Poster House.

“My intent with the videos was to interview restaurant and store owners to get a sense of the impact of the virus on their businesses,” Young said. “Unexpectedly, as it unfolded, we found ourselves recording and witnessing one of the saddest days in Chinatown history.”

Julia Knight, director of Poster House (which opened in June 2019), said the series was a natural outgrowth of the museum’s obligations to the community that supports it. “We’re a brand new museum,” Knight said. “It was a strange time to come to open an exhibition of Chinese posters, but it meant that we had spent time collaborating with other institutions and individuals dedicated to Chinese history and culture, so we we immediately turned to them to see if we could help or act in any way.

Photo of Mei Chau, owner of Aux Epices, from ‘Coronavirus: Chinatown Stories’, Episode 3, 2020. Courtesy of Poster House.

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, institutions have pursued bold new conservation initiatives, shared group experiences, and embraced community-driven activism. While these are all important facets of the museum experience, many people also miss the fundamental joy of interacting with and interpreting art. Museums around the world have launched social media campaigns that seek to recreate the deeply felt connections visitors make with art – and these campaigns have often taken the form of memes.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art launched its #MetTwinning social media campaign months before the quarantine, but the concept – which inspires people to recreate their favorite works through staged self-portraits – has exploded in popularity across multiple platforms of social media. The Rijksmuseum and the J. Paul Getty Museum have launched similar campaigns over the past month. Users have recreated everything from ancient marbles to Impressionist masterpieces, which museums often promote through their social media channels.

Sarah Waldorf, social media manager at the J. Paul Getty Trust, said the Getty’s social media challenge was inspired by the Rijksmuseum, with the added bonus of the Getty’s extensive digital collection of artwork and images available as a starting point. “We launched the challenge and linked people to the thousands of online collectible images we have for people to download and use for free,” Waldorf said.

The goal of Getty’s campaign, and others like it, is to make people not only feel connected, but to help them regain a sense of identity. And the museum’s digital initiatives don’t stop at costume challenges: on Thursday, it launched art generatoran add-on for the popular online game Animal Crossing: New Horizons which allows players to import any artwork from Getty’s open-access library into the game.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons, 2020. Photo by Sarah Waldorf. Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum.

“As people are isolated, a sense of community and connection feels more sacred than ever,” Waldorf said of the photography challenge. “People at home are looking for ways to bond with friends and family, even from a distance. I think it also speaks to the power of creativity – that by dressing up, searching for things in your house, doing your hair or makeup, you become the director of your own shoot and, in a way, regain a sense of control over your situation.

The power of museums comes from their role as centers – for people, art, caring and community. In a world where isolation is currently the norm, staying centered (emotionally, psychologically, and creatively) hasn’t been easy. But as the creative teams at these institutions show, the work of discovery is an ongoing process. Even as the pandemic continues to change the daily lives of billions of people, there are exciting opportunities to connect in every corner of the digital space.

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