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Curation in the Age of Coronavirus

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I came to Baltimore to attend law school, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that my deepest sense of purpose comes from working with artists. It was always my dream to eventually open a gallery and, when I moved here from Texas, I decided to use my spare time and energy to create exhibitions with artists whose work I respect. 

After a number of public projects with WDLY, a nomadic art event organization I founded with Malcolm Lomax, including a BMA Art After Hours takeover, my curatorial dreams came to fruition in March 2020 with two new professional milestones.

One was the opportunity to curate ANOTHER COUNTRY, a group exhibition featuring Brandon Coley Cox, Abigail DeVille, Ariel René Jackson, Devin N. Morris, and Monsieur Zohore at Terrault, an independent artist-run gallery in Baltimore’s Bromo Arts District. The other opportunity came in the form of my new job at BmoreArt as the Connect + Collect Gallery Coordinator, where I manage the C+C gallery space, as well as serve as an intermediary for the artists currently participating in the program. 

Before I started, I was full of ideas to further the mission of connecting artists and collectors through outreach, programming, studio visits, and exhibitions. However, overnight these two opportunities have radically shifted because of the impact of COVID-19, and I am now faced with the very strange question of being a curator for exhibitions and galleries that no one can see in person for the foreseeable future.

What does it mean to be a curator under quarantine? How do you curate exhibitions in a time when no one can visit a gallery or museum? How can I shift my own thinking to continue to serve artists and audiences effectively, but without physical proximity or space?

The ideal way to experience art is always in person, but art retains a significant and lasting value even from a distance. People have always experienced great art through books and catalogues, well before the internet and global travel became widespread. And I know, now more than ever, that I am still a curator and can play a valuable role, even without a physical space.

We can still curate virtually, conceptually, and digitally and through various media and perhaps this has been an underutilized strategy until now? I am at a curious place in my professional career where I have an opportunity to define, at least to myself and my community, what a curator is and does, as well as the larger implications for this role in the future. Much of my first two weeks on the job at BmoreArt involved researching these methods of virtual curation. 

Despite social distancing, people need art, all kinds of it, more than ever before. Like a magical talisman or a healing balm, art has the incredible and innate ability to unite people across great distances.

As a curator, my goal has always been to activate, support, challenge, and educate the artists of my place and time, as well as cultivate new audiences for them. This hasn’t changed, but my success in achieving these goals depends completely upon my ability to envision and create new methods and models to show art. I’ve been wondering a lot about what the new art world will look like, in Baltimore and beyond. 

Detail: Illuminated the Blackness of my Invisibility by Abigail DeVille
And the Migrants Kept Coming... by Abigail DeVille
What does it mean to be a curator under quarantine? How do you curate exhibitions in a time when no one can visit a gallery or museum? How can I shift my own thinking to continue to serve artists and audiences effectively, but without physical proximity or space?

Monday, March 16 began the first week of my new position as BmoreArt’s Connect+Collect Gallery Coordinator. Before I officially started, I visualized being in the gallery all the time, and it was strange working from home for the first few weeks—and who knows for how much longer. But I am also grateful that I can work from home. I have friends who work in the service industry or are freelancers who are unable to work and my heart goes out to them. (Here is a list of ways you can support the arts and creatives at this time.) 

My expectation was, and eventually is, to be working in the gallery every day and inviting all sorts of visitors into the space, but because of COVID-19 I have not been able to be in the space yet. However disappointing, this has allowed me to think of my role as a curator and gallery coordinator in new and different ways. Although I am not working in the physical space I am still working for the longevity of the gallery every day.

I have written a few articles for BmoreArt over the past few months, so I was familiar with the mission and the ethics of the organization. I applied immediately because I believe we all benefit from a community that supports and collects the art of its place and time.

At this point, my spirits are high and I am working to design new models and methods to activate this program, and these are not a temporary fix for now with the goal of business as usual in a month or two. I see my role currently as an opportunity to design more effective methods to build relationships between artists, curators, collectors, and ordinary citizens who will become new collectors, and my goal is that these practices serve artists in the short and long term.

On Friday, March 13 ANOTHER COUNTRY hosted an opening reception at Terrault. Many other galleries decided to cancel their exhibits for the weekend after the severity of the global pandemic was announced, but this is the last show that Terrault will ever host and we wanted to responsibly host one last event there for a small group of people.

This is the first exhibition I have ever curated in a gallery and I am grateful for the opportunity to curate the show, grateful for the incredible artists who were part of it, grateful for the opportunity to work with the gallery’s director Carlyn Thomas, and also that we were able to even have the opening. The fear we all felt that night was palpable, but so was the love and sense of community. There was also a feeling of finality. I think that we all knew that night would be one of the last nights we would congregate for the foreseeable future. 

It is surreal and frustrating, working so hard on an exhibition, knowing how good it is, and knowing that very few people will see it. Friends have told me to get a photographer to take pictures of the work, but of course that has proven difficult with social distancing. The week after the opening, I went to Terrault for gallery hours and not one single person showed up, which I completely understand. So I went through the gallery and photographed the show that I poured so much energy into that few people will see in real life. The exhibition officially closes Thursday, April 23 and I’m not counting on civilization being back to normal by then.

ANOTHER COUNTRY is a show I had been conceptualizing for a long time. I wanted to do an exhibit featuring the work of Black artists that spoke to the experience of Black people in a different way, so I decided to explore Afrosurrealism because I felt that a liberatory framework in the age of Trump is absolutely necessary, especially for Black people.

Officially, Afrosurrealism is a literary and cultural aesthetic (and liberatory framework) that explores alternative and expanded ways of knowing and being for Black people. In 1974, Amiri Baraka used the term to describe the work of Henry Dumas. D. Scot Miller’s manifesto Afrosurreal Manifesto: Black Is the New black—a 21st-Century Manifesto, was my starting point and it informed my thinking and selection of artists for the show. For me, Afrosurrealism is about exploring and creating new realities, and it’s a frightening and tragic coincidence that the opening coincided with the “social distancing” era that has been implemented in the United States. 

Guests at the opening for ANOTHER COUNTRY at Terrault on March 14
Titles: Untitled, Holy Holy, Holy, and Illuminated the Blackness of my invisibility
It feels devastating to know that a large audience won’t see ANOTHER COUNTRY. The caliber of the artists alone is something I am astonished by still. We all expended a tremendous amount of labor: myself, the artists, art handlers, the gallery director, friends, family, to get the show open on March 13. And now, the result of COVID-19 is that effort sits in a gallery unviewed.

I selected each artist for ANOTHER COUNTRY in order to excavate realities that are both adjacent to and beyond the norm in America, using video and sculpture to uncover meanings and reveal truths and histories often hidden in the everyday, mainstream world. I felt that each artist’s work had the ability to inspire and create simultaneous realities for the viewer. Gallery director Carlyn Thomas pointed out that there are no traditional paintings or photography in the show, which also challenges what the average person would consider a typical gallery experience. 

Brandon Coley Cox created an untitled piece specifically for the show. It’s large and fills the back gallery wall, he also included smaller works “Orion Twice, Orion Twice” and “Holy, Holy, Holy” that flank opposite walls in the gallery. They contain hidden objects, dust, glitter, ground tires, photographs, crystals, items repurposed to tell stories to define new realities. The three objects are arranged in a triangular configuration in the space, this trinity seems holy and interstellar and when you view them they can serve as a vehicle for uncovering divine meaning. 

Abigail DeVille’s works in ANOTHER COUNTRY are “Illuminated the Blackness of my Invisibility” and “And the Migrants Kept Coming…” They are arranged to intentionally mirror each other. One is a tall, fractured, and repurposed object that contains mirror fragments and archival photographs of Black people. The other a multidimensional figure, composed of sticks and fabric and other found objects discovered by the artist from across distances. Both objects are rebuilt and, in my opinion, divine. 

When I reached out to Ariel René Jackson it was to see if one of her larger sculptures would be available for the show. The artist said that her larger sculptures were unavailable because they were being shown, but she did have a video that had never been exhibited that she could provide for the show. The climax of the video, “Seeing Stars,” displays a globelike object covered in dust, and the artist’s voice in the background reading from James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. Baldwin’s book Another Country inspired the title for the show, also for me, another divine coincidence. 

I selected Devin N. Morris’s “Sittings 1” because I felt that a lot of his work has this dreamlike surrealist quality that make me feel like this pieces activate when you view them, inverting their meaning when you stand before them in real life. His piece made of acrylic, paper collage, a wooden chair and canvas is loaded with information and inversions, reflected from the title to the half sawed chair to the figures you can see through the window. When I reached out to him and said yes, and he sent me the piece that was available I knew that it would be perfect for ANOTHER COUNTRY

And finally, Monsieur Zohore flawlessly created his piece MZ.11 2018-2020 specifically for the show. The blue background covering three walls reflects the cover of Baldwin’s book. He put a tremendous amount of work and attention to detail in the video, which shows an audience throwing bananas at him. This provocative imagery, featuring a semi-naked black artist being assailed by bananas as he is bound and blinded, reflects uncomfortable and painful images of slavery and bondage. The banana also reflects excess of the Art World, specifically Maurizio Cattelan’s $120,000 banana that sent the internet on fire when it premiered at Art Basel. If guests were able to go to Terrault now, they could get a custom Saran wrapped banana autographed by Monsieur Zohore himself, but sadly, they cannot.

It feels devastating to know that a large audience won’t see ANOTHER COUNTRY. The caliber of the artists alone is something I am astonished by still. We all expended a tremendous amount of labor—myself, the artists, art handlers, the gallery director, friends, family—to get the show open on March 13. And now, the result of COVID-19 is that effort sits in a gallery unviewed.

I have been researching methods for documenting the works in the show and am hoping to find a way to make the show available in a virtual online format before it is taken down. This exercise is helping me consider new models for the near and distant future, and perhaps future of curation, for myself and many other curators, and to consider the importance of archival practices as well as the conversations it inspires. 

 

Shifting Stars, video by Ariel Rene Jackson
L-R: And The Migrants Kept Coming, Untitled, Holy, Holy, Holy, & Illuminated The Blackness of my Invisibility

I’ve been thinking a lot about what I will do as soon as I’m able to physically work again in the C+C gallery, what the new world will look like, the artists I want to work with and interview, the shows I can only (right now) dream of curating. When cities started recommending social distancing measures, I saw galleries in New York and California begin to postpone and cancel openings.

I thought about the tremendous amount of work that the artists and curators put into each show and it is heartbreaking. I know my colleagues felt this way, too. And I know other curators and creatives in this city are echoing these feelings of frustration and sadness over the huge amount of energy and resources poured into art and exhibitions that will not be experienced in person. 

I look forward to the days where we can collaborate offline with each other again and actually see each other—these online and virtual interactions, which can still be authentic, are sometimes strange. But this pandemic has forced us to think in new and creative ways about connection and collaboration, and meetings that would have been over coffee or drinks have shifted to phone calls.

I’m learning to use my words more intentionally and to no longer take the passage of time for granted. In the meantime, it has been nice to imagine the possibilities of shows once I am able to fully work in the gallery and I’m having a lot of conversations with artists and curators I want to work with in the future.

Despite a lack of physical proximity, I am still growing as a curator, learning that my role is not just to pick works for shows but to think about the relationships that can be built, between art, gallery, and audience. My role has to expand to include a variety of ways that I can ensure our exhibitions can be viewed by a wide array of diverse audiences, more than ever before.

Even if an individual cannot physically enter our space, there must be an accessible way that they can view the work to the best of their own capabilities in a space that is suited to them, whether that means the work is available online or in alternative formats, through video, audio, and other modes,  it is our job as curators to make this reality happen. 

Some museums have been doing a great job of making art accessible while we are at home and these give me a great deal of inspiration. The J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles has over 15,000 works with descriptions on their Google Arts & Culture page along with a “museum view” option. I’ve also been tuning in to the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam’s Instagram account and recently watched their Director Rein Wolfs give a tour. They have this great program called “Stay at home Stedelijk” where every Friday they offer a taped “live” tour through their collection or exhibitions and the video is made available on YouTube after. In Baltimore, the Walters Art Museum offers a virtual museum and made their entire collection of 36,000 objects available digitally to anyone who wants access and the BMA has been producing videos with different artists they are exhibiting and sharing through Instagram.

When I see museums make exhibitions more accessible across distances it gives me hope for my work as a curator on an alternate scale. Whether you visit in person or online, the C+C Gallery will become more accessible online, whether that be through virtual exhibitions, photographed archives, podcasts, interviews, or virtual studio visits. 

No matter what, curation is about building relationships through communication and trust. Right  right now I am reaching out to collectors to have conversations about values, health, and meaning rather than purchasing art, although I do hope they continue to support artists through purchases. This pause from the status quo and from our routine realities has allowed me to think about what the future of my new role will encompass, and new skills I may need to acquire in order to do my best work. Whether I like it or not, as long as I continue to socially distance and stay healthy, I have an opportunity to breathe, process, research, and dream of the possibilities for the future and, despite all the frustration, it’s actually quite exciting. 

. . .

 

A side note, people keep asking me what I’m doing to entertain myself, so here is a basic list to inspire you.

What I have been watching: I’ve been watching a lot of TV. I binge watched the entire Love Is Blind series. I’m currently rewatching Scandal from the beginning. Also Harry Potter is my usual go-to. I live alone and I’m trying not to make myself paranoid, so I have been avoiding watching scary movies which are actually my favorite. 

What I have been reading: I haven’t been reading anything except for my Twitter timeline, which has actually brought me a lot of joy. Sunday night I laughed so hard I started crying—here’s one of the tweets I’m talking about. I’m not proud of this. I need to read an actual book.

What I have been doing: I’ve been writing. I have been researching how to make the gallery virtual, I have been trying not to panic, and I have been making tacos at least three times a week. I’m trying to channel my energy into being productive because if I think too long about the level of uncertainty I get very worried. I’ve been catching up on music I’ve missed in the last couple of years because I’ve been so busy. 

What I have been thinking about: I’ve been thinking about love and about regret. 

What I wish I could do: I wish I could go to see a movie at the Charles Theater. I wish I could go to Sugarvale and have a glass of wine by myself. I wish I could have dinner at Pen & Quill with my friend Malcolm. I wish I could go to the Crown. I want to take a vacation to Mexico. And I wish I didn’t take for granted the ability to go out with my friends, hug them, and tell them “text me when you get home.”

 

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