It’s tough to recall what feels like a long, long, ago — the Before. Dropping into a museum or gallery to peer up close at the gestures of a Pollock drip painting, or lingering amidst Yayoi Kusama’s hallucinogenic mirrors (after fighting the crowds to get inside). Snuggling into a recliner in the dark — popcorn in hand — to await that blast of Dolby Sound accompanying the latest “007” flick. Snagging a coveted “Hamilton” ticket that delivered on its promise, despite being sardined into your nosebleed seat. Dressing up in your cultured best to take in YoYo Ma perform Bach’s Cello Suites. Going out to a restaurant. With a friend.
And the After. Zoom screens. Youtube rehashes. Netflix. Facebook concerts. DoorDash Zoom cocktails with friends. More screens.
The Brookings Institute issued a report [https://www.brookings.edu/research/lost-art-measuring-covid-19s-devastating-impact-on-americas-creative-economy/]
in August 2020, estimating losses of 2.7 million jobs and more than $150 billion in sales of goods and services for creative industries nationwide. “The fine and performing arts industries will be hit hardest, suffering estimated losses of almost 1.4 million jobs and $42.5 billion in sales.” The report also estimated “more than 2.3 million jobs and $74 billion in average monthly earnings for the creative occupations ... creative occupations in the fine and performing arts — which include the visual arts, music, theater, and dance — will be disproportionally affected, representing roughly a third of wage employment losses.”
Decimated. Last spring, presentations by cultural venues and artists came to a screeching halt, and the problem equation arose everywhere: how do we continue to do what we do to survive, but safely — without having audiences come into our buildings? How do we generate and present work that enables our performers and artists to stay 6 feet apart from one another? How — and when — can we sing, dance, perform and play music together IRL — again? And now, how can we possibly hope to channel a multi-dimensional experience from a flat screen?
The necessity of pivoting to virtuality has forced a mad scramble throughout the cultural sector, desperately seeking solutions. While the initial response of many was to sit and try to wait it out, fingers crossed, uncertain how long the pandemic would last. The last 6 months have cemented the realization that virtuality will remain the state of the world for some time, even despite the arrival of effective vaccines.
But there’s a thin silver lining somewhere. The deep reaches of artistic innovation have sparked creative, even thrilling, invention.
Dance and theater productions allow for broader creativity, as performers are inherently moving in space (and can stay physically apart). In May, Jacob Jonas The Company staged “Parked,” [https://vimeo.com/432211673] a socially distanced, drive-in dance performance on a stage of pavement at the Santa Monica Airport in Southern California. As night fell, thirty-five lottery-selected cars pulled into an empty top level airport parking lot, assembling in a circle. Their headlamps spot-lit seventeen masked dancers, leaping and lunging across the lot in the one-night theater-in-the-round. And Manhattan’s New York Live Arts [https://newyorklivearts.org] held dance performances in its glass-walled lobby, viewable from the sidewalk outside or via livestreaming.
How about puppets? In September 2020, Jeremy Scott of the fashion house Moschino teamed up with Jim Henson's Creature Shop to create an entire puppet show [https://www.cnn.com/videos/style/2020/09/25/moschino-milan-fashion-week-spring-summer-2021-orig.cnn] to showcase all 40 pieces from Scott’s collection, hand crafted as scaled-down miniatures. The “show’s” front row audience even included a liliputian Anna Wintour. Later in the year, French start-up Mado XR unveiled a 5,000 sq. ft. LED virtual production studio [https://madoxr.com/] in Paris that accommodates performances, fashion shows and the like to livestream and appear as if they are originating anywhere, including on the moon.
Music ensembles and orchestras face more of an uphill battle. Safe social distancing mandates that musicians must perform masked and at least 6 feet apart from fellow musicians and from their audiences, and probably outdoors — nearly impossible circumstances. Still, the San Francisco Symphony, led by Essa-Pekka Salonen in his debut season, soldiered on, both in person and apart. They first performed the delightful and funny virtual performance of Rossini’s “William Tell Overture” [http://k12.sfsymphony.org/Watch-and-listen/Events/Rossini-Finale-from-William-Tell-Overture?npclid=Cj0KCQiAyJOBBhDCARIsAJG2h5fPs9IUy08oXD7XVaBFlRBHSgakgduwXCoIVxZhO4G2Qqmn_LXOtnoaApEkEALw_wcB&utm_source=google&utm_medium=cpc&utm_term=&utm_campaign=Dynamic+Search+Ads+-+Nor+Cal&gclid=Cj0KCQiAyJOBBhDCARIsAJG2h5fPs9IUy08oXD7XVaBFlRBHSgakgduwXCoIVxZhO4G2Qqmn_LXOtnoaApEkEALw_wcB], complete with kids, cats, dogs, hammers, and screwdrivers. They subsequently launched the brilliant concept of free 1:1 Concerts [https://www.sfsymphony.org/onetoone] for the local community, wherein a single musician performs for a single audience member.
Although an online experience certainly is better than no experience at all, there is no substitute for the sensation that you are watching something in real time. Operas, choral groups, and theater companies have the additional public health challenge that their music and performances require their artists and actors to constantly exhale their breath, creating a dangerous situation of potentially spreading the virus in order to perform their art.
Technology has come to the rescue for singing groups, with the development of special singing masks as well as live streaming technology, from the JackTrip Foundation [https://www.jacktrip.org]. Coordinated video and high-quality audio streams through the JackTrip headset has empowered choral groups like the Ragazzi Boys Chorus [https://www.jacktrip.org/studio.html ] to debut live virtual performances. Opera companies and theater groups also have tapped into their ability to stage their productions with their performers in multiple locations. The American Conservatory Theater’s San Francisco production of “In Love and Warcraft” [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n4VzI1W0_zo] coordinated timing, creative camera angles, and the matching Zoom backgrounds of their actors so they appear to be performing in the same room (even aligning the same poster on the back walls of two actors in two completely different spaces!) And operas in cities like Atlanta, Georgia, [https://www.ajc.com/life/arts-culture/atlanta-opera-under-the-big-top-pivots-to-outdoor-shows-during-covid/PWFDSZJMBZFVZAY5AAMQCVF7TA/ ] Berlin, Germany [https://www.euronews.com/2020/06/12/wagner-in-a-car-park-berlin-opera-adapts-to-covid-19], and Naples, Italy [https://www.euronews.com/2020/07/27/coronavirus-consolation-as-open-air-opera-lifts-spirits-in-naples] are staging productions in the safer, well-ventilated outdoors.
The other silver lining is that with online presentation, cultural productions can now enjoy a global reach, in not only audiences but with their collaborators. The recent, thrilling Music of the Birds [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xXcXZxdzwWs] by Sahba Aminikia matched the San Francisco Girls Chorus and the Kronos Quartet (also located in San Francisco) with the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. and and the Sirkhane Social Circus School in Mardin, Turkey. Productions by the San Francisco Girls Chorus also highlight the critical role that film and video production now have in empowering arts presenters to offer compelling content that can closely recreate the in person experience. Impeccable sound recording and creative, groundbreaking filmmaking, video editing and production [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5RBkQgJlMrc] mimic one’s being in the space with the Girls Chorus singers, offering a keener sense of experiencing a live performance.
This certainly is true of the film arts, which, having been literally kicked out of theaters, have tapped into the nostalgic drive-in experience. The venerable Sundance Film Festival [https://festival.sundance.org/], usually only available to the few who journey to Park City, Utah with invitations and tickets in hand, pivoted into offering live screenings of its 2021 selections, debuting the films countrywide through screening partnerships with indie cinemas and cultural organizations located well beyond Utah. It paired with the Roxie Theater and Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture [https://www.roxie.com/2021-sundance-film-festival/] to screen films at Fort Mason’s newly installed state-of-the-art drive-in theater Fort Mason Flix [https://fortmason.org/event/flix/], which was set up specifically to allow arts offerings to be screened to live audiences, drive-in style. (Fort Mason’s drive-in also is screening productions by SFFilm and the San Francisco Opera, and was even tapped to present, live, the 2020 Presidential Debate.)
The visual arts — critically dependent on presenting exhibitions in interior spaces — are among the most critically impacted, suffering mandated closures of their venues and facing a foreboding existential threat to their very being.
A national July 2020 survey of the pandemic’s impact on museums by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) [https://www.aam-us.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/2020_National-Survey-of-COVID19-Impact-on-US-Museums.pdf] reported the horrifying statistic that up 12,000 museums in the U.S. — about a third of all national museums — could close permanently. AAM president and CEO Laura Lott observed, “Museum revenue disappeared overnight when the pandemic closed all cultural institutions, and sadly, many will never recover.” Without attendance or audiences, critical revenue streams simply ceased. "There is no financial safety net for many museums. The permanent closure of 12,000 museums will be devastating for communities, economies, education systems, and our cultural history," Lott added.
One museum’s strategy, Newfields in Indianapolis, Indiana (formerly the Indianapolis Museum of Art), has been widely criticized as an extreme, even devastating act portending a troubling future for art museum exhibitions. Its entire contemporary art collection was removed, formerly housed in a space equal to almost half a football field. In its place, the museum installed a permanent projection-based venue, the LUME, that can immerse socially distanced viewers in gigantic digital projections. Their first LUME exhibition [https://news.artnet.com/art-world/ima-newfields-van-gogh-1919299] features floor-to-ceiling selections of Van Gogh paintings, draping museum goers in gargantuan sunflowers, cobalt skies studded with swirly stars, and at least five different versions of Van Gogh’s face — making for thousands of perfect future Instagram moments. Museum President Charles Venable explained, “We sold 50,000 tickets … We have an Edward Hopper exhibition [https://discovernewfields.org/calendar/edward-hopper-and-american-hotel] up right now — and I can guarantee you we won’t get 50,000 people to go see Hopper.” To enhance the experience, “gentle scents” are paired with the paintings — like citrus for a still life — along with a synchronized classical music score. The venue’s bar and cafe also will feature treats and cocktails customized to match the artwork. “We’re not sure if we’ll have a ‘bloody ear’ cocktail or anything,” Venable joked, “but there will be a theme.”
The Van Gogh projections exhibition, designed and conceived by Massimiliano Siccardi (who pioneered immersive digital art experiences in France) is on a global tour, having already attracted huge audiences in Toronto, Canada and Paris, France. I snagged a ticket to the San Francisco version, “Immersive Van Gogh” to check it out in early May 2021. The chance to stroll amidst 100,000 cubic-feet of projections starts at $39.99 for adults (the $99 package includes skipping the line, a Van Gogh pillow and a limited edition poster). Other add-ons include Van Gogh themed face masks and key chains; I wouldn’t be surprised if one of those key chains features a replica of a severed ear.
Many museum directors would probably rather jump off a cliff than stage something like LUME. Indeed, last week the Board of Trustees and Board of Governors of Newfields announced, “This morning, we accepted Dr. Charles Venable’s resignation as President of Newfields,” and reference to the LUME exhibition has disappeared from the Newfields website altogether. [https://discovernewfields.org/statement] One might argue that LUME wasn’t all that far removed from a Yayoi Kusama “Infinity Mirror Room” — only 100 times bigger, capable of captivating thousands more people at once (rather than one), and around 1,000 times more lucrative. Desperate times seem to invoke desperate measures that are seen by some museum directors as the only way they can keep their doors open. Newfields is Exhibit A in how such risks can blow up on them.
Many visual art venues, nonetheless, have offered their own virtual programming solutions. Realizing the allure of live or live + asynchronous (i.e., previously recorded) hybrid programming (and Zoom-Bombers seem allergic to fine art, at least so far), many museums and galleries now offer livestreamed performances, live curator walk-throughs of their exhibitions, and even the ability to talk one-on-one with the artists. In New York last September, the Metropolitan Museum of Art featured three livestreams of Bill T. Jones’ and Taiwanese-American artist Lee Mingwei’s site-specific iteration of the durational performance work “OUR LABYRINTH.” [https://www.metmuseum.org/events/programs/met-live-arts/our-labyrinth] On the other coast, the 4th Annual “48 Pillars” exhibition at Arc Gallery in San Francisco features a live curator’s tour on February 27th, and live conversations with each of the artists over the course of the next month, including artists Matt Frederick, Ellen Konar/Steve Goldband, Ina Morava, Stephen Nama, William Salit, E.P. Souza, and Debra Walker. [https://www.arc-sf.com/48-pillars-2021.html] Although local shelter-in-place rules continue to prevent group openings, the ability to talk with the curator and participating artists in an intimate virtual space from anywhere in the world offers a novel way to experience the work.
Other visual arts venues have experimented with safe physical programming through drive-ins, drive-through or drive-by/walk-by exhibits, mural shows, and outdoor displays. Mexico City opened its first drive-through art show, “Objects in the Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear” [https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-11-17/mexico-opens-its-first-drive-through-art-show-as-virus-rages-on] wherein the art was viewed entirely from cars in an empty tricked-out shopping mall parking lot. Six galleries and twenty-four artists — most of them Mexican and ranging from emerging to well-established — staged the ambitious makeshift gallery in which attendees drove slowly through three levels of the parking garage to examine 37 pieces of art while listening to an audio track.
This novel and far-ranging expansion of how exhibitions can be accessed enables a serendipitously inclusive opportunity to view museum collections and gallery exhibits. Indeed, art venues are now rethinking the planning of their future physical spaces [https://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/how-will-covid-19-change-way-future-museums-are-built-180975022/], expanding beyond the traditional interior exhibition experience to tap into 24/7 accessible window exhibition spaces and outdoor courtyards.
Visual art venues that are able to be open to limited capacity have had to tap into the timed experience, requiring most visitors to visit the work by appointment only or during scheduled time slots. Galleries and museums fortunate to have storefront and/or windowed space, however, allow getting somewhat closer to experience the art, without the potential dangers of inhabiting an interior space. California artist Perry Meigs recently opened “Insights From My Garden” [https://sites.google.com/view/perrymeigsinsightsfrommygarden/] at the Claremont Artist Studios in San Mateo, California, a gallery space that enjoys the advantage of floor-to-ceiling windows fronting the sidewalk. One can view most of the paintings through the windows from a safe 10-foot distance, any time night and day, or visit the gallery, masked and by appointment. Meigs’ paintings of verdant green trees, squares of grass lined with Elephant Ears, vibrant Fushcia, purple blooms and luscious yellow fruit succeed in her stated endeavor: “I wanted capture the texture and sense of California light.” Refreshing, exhilarating, yet also meditative, the loosely painted foliage practically glows with life in the gallery’s expansive, light-filled space. The physical layout exemplifies possible future strategies for presenting and accessing visual art. Meigs, an art teacher who splits her teaching duties with studio time, also welcomed the chance to create the paintings sitting at an easel in her garden. “It was so nice to be doing something other than looking at a screen,” she mused.
Australian artist Emily Hunt sadly agrees. After landing an exhibition of her newest body of work — hundreds of meticulously crafted porcelain and cloth sculptures — at the prestigious Kunstraum Kreuzberg/Bethanien in Berlin, Germany, her magical grand opening in November 2020 was not one overflowing with champagne, flowers, and hundreds of well-wishers, but was instead a video camera feed through which the audience virtually roamed desolate galleries full of her work. [https://www.dw.com/en/art-behind-locked-doors-how-galleries-continue-to-suffer-during-covid-19/a-56424221] After spending years conceptualizing and creating the artworks, to be deprived of your premiere audience has to be heartbreaking. “It was an emotional, very weepy time … well, this is the pandemic,” Hunt reflected. Instead of a live audience, her show was translated to a virtual Google Streetview version, where audiences pointed and clicked to “traverse” the galleries and “look” at the art. “The digital aspect of art has been part of the art world for a very long time and there’s been some good things that have happened,” Hunt observed, philosophically. “But my work really has to be seen in person. So I think there’s an absolute difference between digital and analog and in real life.”
The pandemic unexpectedly and painfully has forced the cultural sector into a period of reckoning. Artists and arts presenters have been compelled to revisit their traditional models of production and presentation — many of them decades old and integral elements of their artistic disciplines — along with reexamining the desires and tastes of their audiences, as well as such patrons’ willingness to seek, pay for, and support something new. Much of the art world is still holding its breath to see who will survive, and how. In the meantime, it’s critical for artists and audiences to embrace this virtual revolution, in order for everyone to come out safely. On the After side.