Stuart Horodner: The Art World After COVID

We’ve asked a number of people to write brief reaction pieces to art critic Jerry Saltz’s recent piece in Vulture, “The Last Days of the Art World … and Perhaps the First Days of a New One”. The writers were also asked to comment about the effects the virus and resulting mitigation steps have had on their work. We will be publishing these pieces over the next several months.

How has COVID 19 impacted what you do?

The spread of the virus and all the precautions around it led to the obvious decision to close the UK Art Museum until such time that it is safe to return. The staff and I are working from home, doing research and creating online offerings that provide the robust flavor of what we normally do, if not the actual taste. We meet via Zoom and FaceTime, and the longer our seclusion lasts, the more these gridded conversations keep the connection between us and remind us of our shared commitment to a life in the arts.

In a recent article for The New Yorker, Alexandra Schwartz wrote about the theatre in these days of quarantine: “I hope it doesn’t sound too prematurely elegiac to say that one of the things I miss about going to the theatre is the going: leaving home, travelling, with a sense of purpose, to a specific place at an appointed hour. I miss threading my way through the obstacle course of Times Square, secretly proud of my agility. And I miss being part of an audience, one soul among many. I even miss the infuriating madness of other people.”(1)

I can relate. Not being able to feel each distinct part of the work day – from driving to the university, dealing with the day’s tasks, eating lunch in the break room, and having face-to-face encounters with students, faculty, staff, and the public who’ve come to see an exhibition, attend a lecture or a tour, or participate in a workshop or Family Day activity – is disorienting and depressing. We are planners and presenters, and this gives us a sense of purpose and pride. Not being able to know for certain when to arrange for the installation of new exhibitions, or book travel for exhibiting artists or guest speakers, is maddening. Oh, to be back in the happy days of listening to visitors complain about the lack of parking or scrambling to get ready for an opening reception!

As I write this, government officials and university leadership are making budget calculations and projecting the possibility of phased returns in the future. While we wait for a clear sense of how this will work, my mind goes to the belief that I’ve maintained since adolescence – that art is meaningful and transformative, giving us insights into ourselves and others. While we can’t have the real thing right now, there is something satisfying about delivering a few weekly social media items that can engage the homebound art lover. The museum has a modified Sweet Sixteen basketball tournament going that pits artworks from our permanent collection against each other, asking viewers to vote on their favorites, as well as writing prompts for parents and teachers using current and recent exhibitions, and staff reflections on their own wondrous objects, which is a teaser for the upcoming Cabinet of Wonder exhibition.

How do you see post-COVID 19 practice?

This period puts in even starker relief the vulnerabilities that organizations of all sizes understand about their situation. A small and scrappy art center knows the struggle of paying staff what they are worth, and the value of each grant, membership, and annual fund donation. A venerable encyclopedic museum with millions of annual visitors knows the challenges of securing major sponsorships and the mind-numbing protocols of crowd control. I’m reminded of a comment by artist Xu Bing: “My viewpoint is that wherever you live, you will face that place’s problems. If you have problems then you have art.” (2)

None of us could have imagined that a pandemic would put a total stop to our publicness. That was not in anybody’s strategic plan. But if problems yield art, then our collective creativity now and in the future will figure out appropriate ways of being.

When I interviewed for the directorship of the UK Art Museum in the spring of 2014, I told everyone I encountered that great university museums do three things in this order: they are a valuable asset on campus, offering faculty and students varied exhibits and programs that can be linked to syllabi and various learning outcomes; they are beloved in their communities as a destination for art lovers of all ages and backgrounds; and they contribute to the field, establishing a solid reputation for rigor, experimentation, and relevance.

University museums are often poised to take risks, and I’m thinking of several past and present directors and curators that I’ve respected for years, who have each steered their institutions with passion and clarity. They’ve worked in good times and bad, dealt with questions of appropriate scale, diversity, and inclusion in hiring practices and collection management, and economic uncertainty. A quick list includes Ian Berry at the Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery (Skidmore College), Barry Blinderman at the University Galleries (Illinois State University), Andrea Barnwell Brownlee at Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, Susanne Ghez at the Renaissance Society (University of Chicago), Ann Philbin at the Hammer Museum (UCLA), Larry Rinder at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archives, and Simone Wicha and Veronica Roberts at the Blanton Museum of Art (University of Texas at Austin), to name a few.

Artist Tony Tasset standing next to his Mood Sculpture, installed near the UK Student Center, but relocated this past winter to the front of the UK Art Museum. Photograph by Alan Rideout.

The post-COVID environment will demand that we are secure in being open and can be especially clear about our values and deliverables. What lessons did we learn that can be brought from this curious limbo condition to the first phase of a “new normal?” How can we prioritize our endeavors as we face likely budget cuts and audience anxieties about occupying cultural spaces? Which platforms and what tone will be most effective in communicating the significance of our work into the future?

I’m thinking a lot about the exhibition planned for fall called This is America*, coinciding with the 2020 presidential election. It was conceived to examine aspects of history, citizenry, faith, race, sexuality, dignity, power, and struggle today. How can it not be altered to address, in some way, the precautions we are taking, from hand washing to social distancing? It was always meant to challenge viewers to sort out their knowledge of, and feelings about, our country. Will visitors want to be challenged after months of isolation and anxiety?

How do you respond to Jerry Saltz’s recent article, The Last Days of the Art World … and Perhaps the First Days of a New One? (3)

I agree with him that the inequalities in the system which were obvious before will be even more so. I’m not interested in making predictions right now. Everyone has their version of the glory days and there have been war stories at every level of the artworld for decades. I will save mine for another day.

There will be changes, as always. Artists, galleries, critics, collectors, and institutions are never static. I remember Leon Golub telling me: “There are three things: your work, your livelihood, and your personal life. If any two are going well at the same time consider yourself lucky.” (4)

Given the current situation, we might need to be content with one good thing. We are all in the big “we’ll see.” But we are in good company.

  1. Alexandra Schwartz, “Screen Time: Performers on lockdown turn to their smartphones,” The New Yorker, pp 75-77, April 6, 2020.
  2. Xu Bing, in Letters to a Young Artist, Peter Nesbett, Shelley Bancroft, and Sarah Andress, eds. (New York: Darte Publishing, 2006), 15.
  3. Jerry Saltz, “The Last Days of the Art World … and Perhaps the First Days of a New One,” New York (Apr 2, 2020), https://www.vulture.com/2020/04/how-the-coronavirus-will-transform-the-art-world.html, accessed April 16, 2020.
  4. Leon Golub, conversation with the author, October 15, 1999.

Top image photo by Brian McGowan on Unsplash

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Stuart Horodner is Director of The University of Kentucky Art Museum. He was previously Artistic Director of the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center.