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Valuable Moments From the Garbage Year

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There are numerous notes and observations from this year—from March, onward—in my Google docs, half-baked pieces of writing about online “art viewing,” anxiety, distraction, collectivity, upheaval, and productivity that I probably won’t finish. Portions of them feel worth sharing, while others are entirely useless for anyone else to see, and either way, throughout the year I’ve told myself there’s more important work to do and I close the tab. Much of this writing is ostensibly about nothing, or otherwise it is a container for things I noticed and wanted to remember from within my environment—my house, which I hardly ever left. 

Here’s one snippet of the latter, from early April: Every day the backyard tree, Bradford pear, has gotten greener. I wake up to this tree out my window. For months it was winter-bare and harsh, then spring came through and it budded, flowered. The blossoms were white, the petals tiny and delicate as a baby’s fingernail, and they bobbed around, crowding my window. Slowly, and I missed it somehow, the light green leaves came out, and I imagined feeling the new growth, a rougher satin or maybe a smoother suede. I don’t have a good reason for not going out to touch the new leaves but I think it has something to do with what I’ve lately been calling the necessary precautions. […] Circling back to the feeling of ineptitude. / Trying to make a tree be more than a tree.

I’m not sure if I was really trying to make a tree be more than a tree or if I just wanted to appreciate my ability to watch it grow. The easy ritual of just looking and taking notes in a rare, quiet moment in what was to become an absurdly worse year. 

Photos by author

It feels important to write some cogent, thoughtful summary about the year, but it’s impossible. Looking back and assessing the past twelve months is harder now than in previous years because 2020’s devastation is still raw and infuriating, and it is not over. But okay, I’ll bite. What have we realized, or re-realized, or realized for the nth time in 2020? 

Here are some things: Our structures are untenable. Nothing is certain. Wealth and cruelty are inextricable. Most people’s precariousness is invisible to those who’ve never experienced it. Individualism is a sickness, illness is political, and time is fake, among other Holzer-like truisms I’ll regret writing later.

Throughout the year, I have circled back to what we in this country understood about the pandemic in March, when terms like “social distancing” and “flatten the curve” were new to most of us and when we didn’t even know if wearing masks was effective. I remember the early rhetoric that said if we didn’t all “stay at home,” around 80,000 Americans could die and many more would take ill. When places began shutting down, many of us had no idea that by December we would still be here—with scarce support from the government that would be funny if it wasn’t despicable—and with more than 300,000 people in the US dead from COVID-19, and counting.

In the pandemic’s early days, on a more local level, I had no idea what BmoreArt’s coverage would look like. A few reviews I’d assigned fell through soon after galleries and museums closed. Still, obviously, there were plenty of stories to tell: Sickness, job losses, furloughs, psychic trauma, death, and grief would all reach Baltimore’s art community. And after a couple of months of quarantine, when uprisings exploded across the country in protest against the police and against the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others, of course Baltimore would show up in solidarity too.

All of the struggles against and within institutions are linked; the realms of art and culture are not immune, and they are nowhere near as utopian as they may initially seem. The internal reckonings provoked by those with the least power within museums and schools and everywhere else this year are not new. The accusations of racism, unlivable wages and wage theft, sexual harassment, and other intractable issues are not at all new. The movements against the systems that allow these behaviors are not new either. But they all seem to have gained new life in this year of ongoing grief. 

It is tempting to dwell in the anger and despair that have been the undercurrent even in moments of modest relief or joy. It is easy to fall into a depressive pit and not be able to find a way out. And although rage can be motivating, what keeps me afloat are the small, shining bright spots, dulled as they might be by the shit that surrounds them. 

This year-end list is not a typical one because it has not been a typical year. Rather, here is a selection of valuable moments in the fields of art and culture that are not without their caveats, that in some cases are redress for problems that shouldn’t have existed in the first place or could’ve been avoided. But they are moments we want to recognize, to hold onto and slip into our pockets for later when we need to remember some of the small graces we witnessed this year that made life feel full and worthwhile.

 

Valuable Art Moments in 2020 

New Ways of Seeing

I am so tired of screens! Wow. My eyes have not stopped twitching since March. When things first started to shut down and events and art and everything became entirely virtual, I was disappointed because the idealist in me wanted everything to just pause, take a moment, rest, reassess. The realist in me wasn’t surprised that, instead, nearly everyone continued chugging, trying to pretend that a website or a PDF could pass as an “online art exhibition.” Everyone was in survival mode, and the frantic pivot to online exhibitions and programming made sense—events that had been planned for months or years suddenly could not have an IRL audience, so those that had the means and assets (documentation, high-quality images and video files, text and so forth) quickly adapted to online platforms. But the internet is best suited for distraction, and with this pivot, at some points, it felt like museums were positioning themselves as sites of distraction in these awful times instead of as sites of education and experience and connection as they’ve often claimed to be. 

I did see a bunch of cool things online this year, though. I liked the sort of random expansiveness of the Baltimore Museum of Art’s Screening Room. I like searching through disparate objects in the Walters Art Museum’s digitized collection and stumbling upon things like this presumably inadvertently penis-shaped Jesus, a 16th-century Russian icon painting in the museum’s Byzantine collection. I liked Galerie Lelong & Co. and PPOW Gallery’s Irrigation Veins, an online exhibition of work by Ana Mendieta and Carolee Schneemann. Just as much as I hate this country’s for-profit healthcare system, I liked Sam Lavigne and Tega Brain’s Get Well Soon project—“an archive that shouldn’t exist” featuring comments from medical fundraisers on GoFundMe expressing “care, well wishes, sympathy and generosity in the face of personal adversity and systemic failure.”

Images from Galerie Le Long & Co. and PPOW’s “Irrigation Veins: Ana Mendieta and Carolee Schneemann, Selected Works 1966-1983.” L: Ana Mendieta, Butterfly, 1975, still from super-8mm film transferred to high-definition digital media, color, silent. R: Carolee Schneemann, Illinois Central College 1967/1979, hand colored digital print.

I did see a couple of IRL art shows, but only a few. For my first public outing in months, I saw A People United at Current Space’s storefront window, curated by my coworker Teri Henderson’s WDLY and Rebel Lens. I also saw Close Read, an exhibition of projected works at BmoreArt’s Connect+Collect gallery space featuring the work of Savannah Wood, SHAN Wallace, and Akea Brionne Brown. Writers for BmoreArt saw much more and we published some of their thoughts: Nora Belblidia interviewed Dave Eassa about his work in Bonnie Crawford’s The Shed (an actual shed in Crawford’s backyard); Cara Ober wrote about Laura Amussen’s outdoor exhibition at Ladew Topiary Gardens; Teri Henderson caught up with the artists behind Hot Sauce Artist Collective, which organized pop-up exhibitions around Station North and Sandtown; and Suzy Kopf continued her Art AND studio visit series, conducting most of these conversations over Zoom. 

We look forward to more and more innovative ways of experiencing art in a safe and socially distant manner, and we hope to be able to decrease our screentime next year. Stay tuned for BmoreArt’s list of this year’s best art exhibitions.

 

Impromptu Public Art

If you view the billboard on North Avenue and Charles Street as an evolving piece of public art as I do, please recall some of its previous faces: “WHO IS LAND BANKING?” “WHERE DOES THE BUCK STOP? / INVESTMENT * DIVESTMENT * REINVESTMENT * DISPLACEMENT * FRONTIER” “WHOEVER DIED FROM A ROUGH RIDE / THE WHOLE DAMN SYSTEM…” In early May, the billboard was made over with a new slogan: CANCEL RENT AND FUCK THE POLICE! Across the country and locally, tenants were organizing rent strikes and constituents were phone zapping elected officials demanding them to cancel rent and mortgages, because if people cannot work in a pandemic how can they pay rent? (Also, housing is a human right.) Prior to this makeover, the billboard was a sign for Baltimore’s then-mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young’s re-election campaign. As Brandon Soderberg wrote in the Baltimore Beat: “This new message returns the billboard’s message to the demands for change and accountability it has been broadcasting for the most of the past five years. It was put up there now in response to it being five years since the Baltimore Uprising and to criticize ongoing actions by the Baltimore Police.”

As a slogan, CANCEL RENT AND FUCK THE POLICE encapsulated so much of the energy of its moment in May, as job losses and unemployment claims were skyrocketing, and so were the number of people contracting COVID-19 and the number of people dying of it. At the time, these records were being set and were still shocking, though seven months later the records continue to break again and again, and the eviction crisis continues to loom. The Cancel Rent billboard lasted less than a full day, when it was transformed by someone else to say “Cancel Hate and Thank the Police” which was just … embarrassing. Cringe.

For several months now, though, it has said “DEFUND BPD,” an objectively good and clear message in my opinion. (As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor writes in the New Yorker, “it is in city budgets that you can really see if ‘Black Lives Matter’ to the people who govern them.”) The new sign went up after the local protests over the summer against police brutality in solidarity with protesters in Minneapolis, Louisville, Atlanta, and elsewhere. 

During those months of uprisings, photos of “BLACK LIVES MATTER” painted on city streets around the country went viral online. For some, the declaration felt affirmative while others saw it as a symbolic gesture that didn’t have any heft or proof behind it. In Baltimore, though, the mood was jubilant when “BLACK TRANS LIVES MATTER” appeared across two blocks of Charles Street in the Old Goucher neighborhood, on a stretch of road known as “The Stroll,” where sex workers, many of whom are Black and/or trans, work. Artist Jamie Grace Alexander got permits for the mural from the city and worked with volunteers and Baltimore Safe Haven, a nonprofit that offers material support in the form of housing connection and harm reduction for trans folks, to paint the mural in a day in the middle of July.

Street art and murals are inherently temporal and subject to the whims of weather, pollution, and other street artists. As a piece of art on the literal street, and on such a busy road, the Black Trans Lives Matter mural has steadily been worn down since July. But even as its colors fade, its message ought to remain imprinted. I’m thinking about what Teri Henderson wrote for BmoreArt in her piece about Alexander and the mural: “Slogans are sometimes hijacked.” Black Lives Matter started small, she wrote, with the activists Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, and over the last near-decade it has grown into a vast and complex movement. “It’s a hashtag that floods our newsfeeds, widely proclaimed by museums with few Black curators or predominantly white programming, by retail and restaurant businesses with documented racist policies…. How do we prevent these movements from getting co-opted by powerful actors with no intention of following through on their declaration that Black Lives Matter?”

[Image: Black Trans Lives Matter Mural on Charles Street, photo by Timothy Wolfer]

 

Emergency Grants 

In lieu of immediate, substantive support from the government, lots of artists and freelancers had to rely on emergency relief funds throughout the COVID-19 pandemic from foundations, nonprofits, and other grantmakers, many of which pooled resources in order to get more money to more people. Instead of the usual hustle for odd jobs, bartending shifts, adjunct teaching gigs, or the occasional art sale, artists had to trudge through a matrix of grant applications and unemployment offices and health insurance marketplaces for a patchwork of support that they hoped would help keep themselves together.

The national effort Artist Relief—organized by the Academy of American Poets, Artadia, Creative Capital, Foundation for Contemporary Arts, MAP Fund, National YoungArts Foundation, and United States Artists—offered unrestricted $5,000 grants for artists “facing dire financial emergencies” due to the pandemic. The consortium accepted applications in cycles from April through December 2020 and administered nearly $20 million total to nearly 4,000 artists. Other emergency relief funds came from the Rauschenberg Foundation and NYFA, Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, Maryland State Arts Council, Bromo Arts District, Washington Project for the Arts, and numerous others. Baltimore-based artists Sharayna Christmas, Alanah Nichole Davis, and Abdu Ali also independently organized DIY funding drives for artists in need. 

It was truly encouraging to see artists putting time and effort into fundraising to help out their peers. And there’s no denying the goodwill of all these foundations with far more resources to share, offering it up as it’s desperately needed. At the same time, the overwhelming and clearly abundant need was yet another reminder of how precarious and stratified the arts sector is, and how unstable employment is for art workers—those who create, organize, pack, deliver, install, exhibit, contextualize, guard, and protect the art—having to rely on the capricious generosity of the wealthy for survival even in “normal” times. That is not sustainable, and who falls through the cracks?

[Image: Art by Sheida Soleimani, via @artistrelief Instagram]

 

 

Screenshot of Sam Lavigne and Tega Brain’s Get Well Soon project (getwellsoon.labr.io)

Art Workers Unite

The past several years have seen increased labor organizing in the art field, with workers at museums, foundations, and educational institutions attempting to unionize and secure better working conditions. This year, employees at such institutions as the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, the Milwaukee Art Museum, and others unionized in order to be able to bargain with management for better pay and benefits, increased transparency, and other workplace protections

Alongside union efforts, art workers have also brought internal struggles within institutions to the public through social media. This summer, various Instagram accounts began sharing anonymous stories submitted by workers that illustrate patterns of abusive behavior within these workplaces. “The rise of anonymous Instagram accounts has been driven by a perfect storm… with layoffs, furloughs, shutdowns, and protests colliding with calls against the art world’s hypocrisy and complicity in systemic racism, labor abuses, and so much more,” writes Catherine Wagley for Artnet News. “These accounts were defined by their collective nature (there is power in numbers) and their anonymity (to guard against retaliation in an economically precarious climate), contributing to the sense that they were part of a movement.” Social media’s impact on workplace culture and policy is worth paying attention to. 

Unionizing can seem risky. (Disclosure: I’ve done it.) Anti-union sentiment and intimidation within the workforce at large are well-documented. Unionizing does not prevent, say, a nonprofit organization from simply opting to shut down the operation entirely, as the Los Angeles Marciano Art Foundation did earlier this year. Nor can it prevent a museum from furloughing employees, such as the Philadelphia Museum of Art did in November along with its sudden announcement of temporary closure due to the pandemic. 

But unions give workers more power to negotiate formally, and they can put legal pressure on employers to follow through on their contractual promises. As an anonymous organizer with the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art told Artnet News, “We felt that real change would only come when the balance of power shifted towards those who see the labor issues at the museum first-hand… Ultimately, though, we are combating the museum model. In the weird public/private hybrid model of the museum, there is seemingly unlimited money made in donations for the building and for artwork, but a millionaire or billionaire is never going to swoop in to provide changes to wage structure or employee safety.” 

 

Institutional Reckonings

MICA drew national attention this summer when its faculty issued a vote of no confidence in the school’s administration. The Faculty Assembly sent a letter to MICA’s board of trustees in early September describing six major reasons for their withdrawal of support from the administration, citing a dysfunctional work environment, poor planning for the Fall 2020 semester, insufficient communication, unsustainable workloads, constraints on shared governance, and a lack of financial transparency. The issues raised in that letter echoed similar concerns that students and staff had raised over the previous several months: in June, the Student Voice Association made demands on the school to overhaul and diversify the curriculum, increase budget and finance transparency, include students, staff, and faculty in institutional decision-making, increase pay for low-wage staff, and more. Around that time, an anonymous group of students under the name MICA Callout Collective started an Instagram account (@mica.callout) to put pressure on the school to make similar changes. The account also shared anonymous testimonials from students about racist, sexist, and otherwise abusive behaviors by specific professors. 

The problems that students, staff, and faculty point out are complex and interwoven and, like everything, not easily dismantled, but I was happy to see these movements surface and I hope to see them continue. As I wrote in September, these issues do not start and end with this particular school, and numerous other schools, museums, and other institutions faced similar demands for change and accountability this year in particular, spurred by the growing desire to uproot fundamentally rotten structures across society. 

As Astra Taylor writes in the Boston Review, the pandemic didn’t cause these issues in higher education, it just exposed them and made these schools “uniquely vulnerable to the pandemic’s economic shocks.” Budget cuts, layoffs, and declining enrollment add to the financial problems schools face. “But deeper austerity is not the only possible response,” Taylor writes, “we could also seize this moment of crisis to make our universities more equitable and resilient by restoring public funding and prioritizing a deeper democratic purpose. For this to happen, faculty, staff, students, and adjacent communities must mobilize and demand a seat at the table.”

 

Artist-Driven Fundraisers and Mutual Aid

At the beginning of the pandemic, people in my circles and neighborhood quickly started doing mutual aid, getting groceries or taking care of kids or raising money for people who needed some extra help. In Baltimore and elsewhere, artists and collectives also organized themselves and each other to raise money for food banks, bail funds, activist organizations, mutual aid funds, and more initiatives in response to the pandemic and protests. In May, Sarah Cho and Mazzy Bell organized Images for Baltimore in partnership with Full Circle Fine Art Services to raise money for the Maryland Food Bank. Cho and Bell reached out to nearly 50 local artists who donated images of their art for the cause, raising more than $18,000 that would go right to the food bank. Shortly after the fundraiser ended, Cho and Bell redirected their website to a resource page for people seeking info on protests, organizations, and other ways to learn about and support those working towards Black liberation. 

Independent publishing collective Press Press organized Poetry for Persistence, featuring risograph prints from eleven artists including Abdu Ali and Karryl Eugene, Kimi Hanauer, Georgia McCandlish, Bilphena Yahwon, and others who responded to “a set of prompts and shar[ed] visions of collectivity, care, joy, sanctuary, future, and possibility.” Prints were for sale through Printed Matter, and the funds raised went to Baltimore Action Legal Team’s Community Bail Fund, Sex Workers Outreach Project Baltimore, Baltimore Safe Haven, Keith Davis Jr. Legal Defense Fund, BYP100, and The Free Black Women’s Library’s Sister Outsider Relief Grant. Press Press also published its Toolkit for Cooperative, Collective, & Collaborative Cultural Work—a vital, open-ended guide for people interested in coalition-building—which is available for free via this nicely designed website and for sale through Printed Matter as a print booklet. (Disclosure: I copyedited this publication.)

Artist Monsieur Zohore sold prints to raise money for Baltimore Action Legal Team (BALT), in partnership with the New York-based Palo and New Release galleries. As Zohore told Teri Henderson at the time, the prints were available at varying prices to make it more accessible to support BALT. “In turn I get to share these beautiful and tragic works with people who purchase the prints as a reminder and meditation on the tragedy of what we are all living with,” he told BmoreArt.

And later this year, in September, Dylan “Toyomansi” Ubaldo, a culinary/music artist and longtime fixture of the DIY scene, raised money for Baltimore squeegee boys through T-shirt fundraisers. For the first T-shirt design, Ubaldo commissioned Reem Unknown; a second round was designed by the artist known as WRTSOEL. For every shirt that was purchased, another one would be screenprinted at Black Collar Screen Printing and distributed to squeegee-ers along with cash. Squeegee kids are entrepreneurs, Ubaldo reasoned, and “a T-shirt is a great way to just show people what you’re doing,” as he told me in September. “And at the end of the day, they’re doing a service, so give them a tip.”

All of these efforts felt momentous and encouraging. Helping each other get through this even if we’re running low ourselves shows that we still have some fight in us left.

[Image: Poetry for Persistence, organized by Press Press]

 

PPE Production

Artists, designers, and craftspeople teamed up with businesses and maker spaces like Open Works, Sew Lab, FabLab, and others to fabricate personal protective equipment which had been in short supply commercially throughout the pandemic. The fabric shop/sewing studio Domesticity helped organize the production and distribution of reusable cloth masks for local healthcare providers: about 400 volunteers produced nearly 29,000 masks according to the shop’s website. In April, Fab Lab Baltimore manufactured face shields for area hospitals, and also partnered with the advocacy groups Housing Our Neighbors and Baltimore Transit Equity Coalition to fabricate PPE for people in Baltimore homeless shelters and for people who rely on public transportation. The Catonsville workspace hoped to “help stem the flow of hospital visits and to work in communities that data has shown are more at-risk of contracting COVID-19.”

As Cara Ober wrote about for BmoreArt, SewLab USA, a Baltimore-based manufacturing company that constructs soft goods from sustainably sourced materials, joined up with Nightmare Graphics to produce reusable face masks with “two antimicrobial inner layers for maximum filtration against airborne germs” starting in April. Their masks are still available in an online shop

And from May to June, the makerspace Open Works produced 28,000 face shields with the help of 350 volunteers using 3D printing. Open Works sold face shields at cost to area hospitals, which allowed them to rehire some of their furloughed workers. In a story about Open Works for BmoreArt’s Issue 09: Craft, Brandon Soderberg wrote about “the creative energy and entrepreneurial deep-thinking” that gathers in this Greenmount West space, which was a blessing during a pandemic that the government horribly fumbled. “It felt like the government at every level was hapless in the face of this, and that was super discouraging. I mean, that was expected at the federal level but everything, everywhere seemed so quickly overwhelmed,” Will Holman, Open Works’ executive director, told BmoreArt. “This was a way to push back against the chaos and powerlessness.”

[Image: Masks sewn by volunteers for Fab Lab (image via @fablabbaltimore)]

 

Pivoting

I know you hate this word, and we hate it too. Nevertheless, it is worthwhile to take a moment to celebrate adaptation and resilience, especially when it seemed impossible. As shutdowns began, many of our favorite local restaurants, bars, and shops quickly figured out curbside pickup and delivery and e-commerce so we could continue patronizing their establishments. Local theaters came up with weird, cool ways to create plays that could be experienced by mail, at home, or virtually. Experimental music festival High Zero went virtual and linked with “similarly minded artists and festivals in Chicago, Santa Fe, and Seattle to curate a streaming event” on Twitch. Also on Twitch: the channel QuaranTV, curated and programmed by Baltimore artists. A whole bunch of Baltimore artists and The Ottobar released a compilation album fundraiser. Musicians, artists, curators, writers, and DJs shared with Teri Henderson how they are coping in quarantine. Galleries and museums figured out new ways to support artists and show their work. Teachers learned to adapt their lessons to a digital format—take a look at Suzy Kopf’s guide to making demo videos for art instructors. By now, we have all figured out Zoom, kind of, maybe.

But also, places we love have closed. More might close, operating on already slim margins. Some couldn’t figure out how to pivot or didn’t have the right resources. Many local business owners recently misdirected their anger over another wave of shutdowns at Baltimore’s new mayor, Brandon Scott, who was acting in the interest of public health and trying to mitigate another COVID surge. 

This year has been devastating. Across the US, an unprecedented number of people have lost their jobs, and millions are facing possible eviction and homelessness, on top of the general fear of illness and the trauma of millions around us who are sick and hundreds of thousands dead. People have had to completely reorient their lives in order to survive or to help others survive. That is all real, too. The end of a terrible year won’t bring an end to the terribleness. Here’s hoping, though, that there’s something amid all of this that reminds us that our interdependence is a gift and an opportunity—not a burden.

 

Header image: Billboard on North Avenue and Charles Street, May 3, 2020, photo by author.

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