Without a doubt, the COVID-19 pandemic changed the way audiences view art. From virtual tours and talks to meditative, educational livestreams, museums and other cultural institutions found unique ways to keep would-be guests engaged from the comfort of their living rooms. And although many of us developed serious cases of screen fatigue after sheltering in place and weathering regional lockdowns, when it came to experiencing live music, it was hard to imagine a socially distanced twist on concerts or shows that felt both safe and wholly engaging.
But the shift we experienced during the pandemic hasn’t stopped with how we experience art. The ways creatives make art and tell stories have been — will be — irrevocably altered as a result of the pandemic. While it might feel like it’s “too soon” to create art about the pandemic — about the loss and anxiety or even the glimmers of hope — it’s clear that art will surface, sooner or later, that captures both the world as it was and the world as it is now. There is no “going back to normal” post-COVID-19 — and art will undoubtedly reflect that.
How Did Museums, Galleries and Art Spaces Adapt to Pandemic Safety Measures?
When it comes to social distancing, the Mona Lisa is a pro. Located at the Louvre Museum in Paris, Leonardo da Vinci’s beloved Renaissance painting is displayed in a purpose-built, climate-controlled enclosure — complete with bulletproof glass and several feet of space between its spot on the wall and the stanchion that holds legions of viewers back. On average, 6 million people view the Mona Lisa each year, and while the painting is somewhat of an anomaly, large museums like the Louvre are inundated with throngs of visitors on a near-daily basis. Or, at least, that was true for these popular tourist sites before the novel coronavirus hit.
On July 6, the Louvre ended its 16-week closure, allowing masked folks to mill about and take in works like Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (above) from a distance. Unlike theaters, cinemas and concert halls, museums tend to be better equipped than other tourist hotspots to mitigate visitor contact and control crowds. It’s not uncommon for institutions with popular exhibits to institute timed ticketing blocks or curb the number of guests that enter a gallery space at a time, even before social distancing requirements were put into place. Those practices became even more important during reopening but before large-scale vaccine rollouts had begun taking place.
Why brave the pandemic to see the Mona Lisa then? For many folks in the art world, including the general director of Opera Memphis Ned Canty, going to a museum or art space was more than just something to do to break up the monotony of sheltering in place. “[W]e will always want to share that with someone next to us,” Canty said. “Whether we know that person or not, that increases the value of the experience for everyone… It is a basic human need that will not go away.”
As the world’s most-visited museum, the pre-COVID-19 Louvre welcomed 50,000 people a day, on average. In the summer of 2020, the museum instituted mask and distancing requirements, an online-only reservation system and a one-way path through the building. Visitors could no longer meander from piece to piece, and, over the summer, 30% of the Louvre remained closed. According to NPR, the Louvre anticipated 7,000 people on its first day back, and avid fans didn’t let it down: The museum sold all 7,400 available tickets for the grand reopening.
While that number is nowhere near 50,000, it still felt like a large gathering of people, no matter the restrictions the museum had put in place. It was certainly large by COVID-19 standards, to say the least, which is probably why the Louvre shuttered again in late October in compliance with the French government’s guidelines — and amid a spike in positive COVID-19 cases. Although the museum has since reopened, mask mandates and social distancing rules have remained, and only the outdoor eateries have been opened.
What Have We Learned From the Art of Pandemics Past?
In the mid-14th century, the Black Death, an epidemic of the bubonic plague that swept through Eurasia and North Africa, killed between 75 million and 200 million people. In response, Boccaccio penned The Decameron, a “human comedy” about people who flee Florence during the Black Death and keep their spirits up by telling comedic, tragic and raunchy stories. It might have seemed strange in your college lit course, but, now, in the face of COVID-19 memes and TikTok videos, maybe The Decameron‘s comedy-in-the-face-of-despair perfectly captured the zeitgeist?
Later on, in the wake of the 1918 flu pandemic, artist Edvard Munch painted Self Portrait After the Spanish Flu. Not unlike the selfies taken by tired, despairing healthcare professionals and overwhelmed COVID-19 survivors, Munch’s self-portrait captured not only his jaundice but a sense of despair and nihilism. At a time when folks were dealing with the era’s dual traumas — the end of World War I and 50 million deaths worldwide due to the 1918 influenza pandemic — it’s no wonder the art world shifted so drastically.
With this in mind, it’s clear that past public health crises have shifted the aesthetics and intent of the work artists are moved to create. Not unlike in the early 20th century, we’re living through a time of staggering change. Not only have we had to contend with a health crisis, but in the United States, folks realized the power of protest in meaningful new ways by rallying behind the Black Lives Matter Movement; the fight for the rights and sovereignty of Indigenous peoples; trans and queer rights movements; and the fight against climate change.
Why Was It Important to Foster Art Spaces Outside of Museums and Galleries During the Pandemic?
The AIDS Crisis of the 1980s and 1990s — augmented by the silence and inaction from President Reagan and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — devastated a generation, namely a generation of gay men, Black people, queer people of color and sex workers. In addition to fighting for their public health concerns to be recognized in the midst of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, activists were also fighting for human rights. As such, myriad artists, including Keith Haring, Robert Mapplethorpe, Andres Serrano, David Wojnarowicz and Nan Goldin (just to name a few), lent their work and voices to bring visibility to what the government was ignoring.
The intent behind these works varied: Some pieces were meant to document the epidemic, while others were meant to amplify silenced voices and underscore the humanity of folks fighting for their lives. The goal wasn’t to make museum-approved works. Now, during a time of immense change and disruption, we can still see important, era-defining works of art emerging all around us.
In the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the first wave of Black Lives Matter Protests in 2020, artists across the country — and even the globe — took to the streets to create murals dedicated to Floyd, to Black activists and to promoting radical change. In parks and public spaces all across the world, activists toppled statues and other monuments to racist and bigoted historical figures, making way for artists to immortalize new (and actual) heroes.
In addition to street art, artists and art collectives seized the opportunity to capture the general public’s attention with other forms of protest art. In Brooklyn, New York’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood, an anonymous group of artists installed a Black Lives Matter piece (above). In it, Black figures, covered in the names and images of Black men and women who have been murdered at the hands of police and because of white supremacy, fill a Fulton Street plaza.
Across the country, in Los Angeles, Mae and Sydni Wynter designed the temporary installation, Bear the Truth, at City Hall. The grassroots exhibition, made up of teddy bears holding Black Lives Matter signs and sporting face masks as acknowledgements of the COVID-19 pandemic, was meant to be a “positive gateway for children to use their voices for change.”
What’s the State of Art and Museums Now?
From murals on the sides of buildings to installations in public spaces, these works of art are accessible to all — there’s no monetary barrier to entry, and they’re in open spaces, which allowed folks navigating the pandemic to still see them and still allows us to enjoy them as fully vaccinated people have resumed pre-pandemic activities. This isn’t a new way of displaying or experiencing art by any means, but it certainly feels more important than ever. Museums have largely begun reopening their doors while maintaining safety measures, but, as with many other COVID-19 protocols, things seem to vary state-by-state. This may remain true for the foreseeable future, and policies may vary from museum to museum.
While museums may not be “essential” businesses or services, it’s clear that there’s a want for art, whether it’s viewed in-person or virtually. In the same way it’s difficult to conceptualize what sorts of mediums or imagery will dominate post-COVID-19 art, it’s difficult to say what will happen to museums in the coming months. One thing is clear, however: The art made now will be as revolutionary as this time in history.