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Art COVID-19: it took a pandemic for galleries to go digital

Apr. 3, 2020
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It seems like every day since the Los Angeles governor ordered a stay-at-home mandate in response to the pandemic, more and more galleries, museums, and art institutions have been going digital and offering virtual accessibility through social media and online platforms. The for-profit art-fair tycoon Art Basel, which normally requires a flight, hotel, and hefty entrance fee, is now ~free~ through virtual viewing rooms. With the suspension of large gatherings in close quarters, many blue-chip galleries are also being forced to grapple with visibility by offering online exhibitions. 

It’s not just profit-hungry organizations staking a claim in the digital landscape. The print magazine Contemporary Art Review LA is offering a PDF of their next issue with reduced participation fees. MOCA’s debut of Virtual MOCA on March 23rd rolled out virtual programs, events, and talks that would’ve otherwise been canceled. Adding to the gestalt of this tech wave, passels of artists and graduating students are taking to Instagram Live and Stories to showcase canceled exhibitions. 

In response to self-isolation, many of these spaces have found themselves postponing anticipated events and openings that would normally generate revenue, sponsorship, and exposure. The struggle to stay relevant and maintain consistent viewership is more important than ever in securing funding and remaining competitive. The foreboding digital landscape, once considered threatening to the authenticity of the art “artifact,” is now the last lifeline. Perhaps it’s the very nature of the accessibility of information that challenges the white cube as a cultural institution. After all, a new means of media dissemination liberates the viewer from the stronghold of a broken institutionalized system. I run the risk of sounding trite, but truly, art spaces have always struggled to cater to a diverse audience that includes different age groups, education levels, and personal interests. But the democracy of the internet—e-democracy, if you will—is demonstrating the shifting times and the need for art spaces to reprioritize their audience. 

The integration of digital technology into our daily lives makes it all the more important to offer extended accessibility. But this has usually been the path of most resistance, as the success of museums and galleries lies in the interactivity of the art object. To a traditional and dated museum model, new media threatens the authenticity of the artifact and the sanctity of the art space. The line between education and entertainment is toed—perceived as a threat to elitist art spaces which quake at the thought of becoming “edutainment” museums. 

I’m not just referring to art spaces having an online presence, because yes, it’s 2020; we know that having an Instagram account is integral to visibility. Nor am I referring to the incorporation of fancy tech gimmicks like mobile phone interaction or audio sensory presentations. And I’m absolutely not referring to these spaces showcasing new media artists, which again, is seriously lacking because of that still awkward exchange between money and the acquisition of nonmaterial objects. What I’m referring to is completely shifting the paradigm of these practices to reorient viewership—present art in a way that doesn’t cater to audiences who already know WTF they’re looking at. No doubt that most of these virtual viewing rooms aren’t for casual art hobbyists, but at least now I don’t have to fly to Miami to be stuck in a stuffy gallery with art liberalists. 

This “unprecedented” time is really reshifting the power dynamics of the art space and its patrons, demonstrating that they actually need us more than we need them. These are opportune times to create momentum for museums, galleries, and art institutions to offer more inclusivity and pedagogical approaches. We know that these spaces depend on our patronage, so inclusivity is more important than ever to the survival of these so-called cultural spaces. 

Long after this quarantine lifts and “social distancing” becomes just another dated meme of the early decade, a question will remain: how do we democratize the art space? My best guess is digital inclusion, which aims to serve all corners of the world-wide web irrespective of education, ability, religion, race, or gender. Again, the key is access. Showcase artists and hire committees with diverse backgrounds, and you’ll attract an audience that feels connected to not only the work but the institution. Yes, online programs and virtual viewing rooms are a step toward breaking down the physical barriers of an institution, but we need better than that.