In February, I interviewed an American photographer based in Shanghai called nicolas for a story of his latest project – a photographic series depicting the strangely deserted streets, squares, malls and airports of China’s second largest city during the coronavirus outbreak. At the time, the virus had already affected 12 countries around the world but it had not quite spread widely in the United States, or at least that is what we were told. The footage showed how a bustling metropolis of 23.4 million people became a ghost town overnight, even before an official lockdown was imposed.
“People are afraid of getting sick, their loved ones get sick, the lack of resources, the loss of their wages,” Nicoco told me. “Basically months of hardship that are probably ahead.”
While writing this article, I had no idea that a month later New York would become the epicenter of the disease in the United States. I even asked Nicoco if she thought the Western media was exaggerating the panic over the coronavirus outbreak in China, as some had argued. Oh, how wrong we were all.
In mid-March, Hyperallergic staff began working remotely from home, like many others. With ambulance sirens blaring outside my window every minute of the day, writing about art was sometimes frivolous and irrelevant as thousands died or fell ill. I also developed a bad habit of falling asleep at night for reruns of Governor Cuomo’s daily COVID briefing performance, which certainly didn’t help ease the growing anxiety.
And then the art world stopped with museums and galleries formwork in the world and switch to virtual domain – which I still can’t get used to. Small galleries were hit the hardest financially with several permanent closure and others in the face of threats from impatient owners. As a partner in an artist-run space in Brooklyn, I experienced this crisis firsthand as our small gallery was bleeding money every month it closed. Like many other small and medium sized galleries, we were not eligible for state or federal assistance due to strict requirements that did not take into account how we operate or collect our meager income.
During this difficult period, I drew comfort and inspiration from artists who mobilized to alleviate the suffering of others, whether in give protective equipment to healthcare workers or offer gestures of gratitude nurses and doctors in overwhelmed intensive care units. I have also been encouraged by the relief efforts of some arts organizations, especially the Queens Museum, which hosted a pantry when it is closed.
The pandemic has also brought diseases from the old art world like institutional racism and income disparities in high relief. We have seen the lowest-paid museum workers who have been put on leave or dismissed suffer the most from closures while generously compensated museum managers have remained relatively unscathed, in most cases taking only reductions. symbolic wages. Of Tate Galleries in London at Frye Museum in Seattle, the majority of affected workers are people of color. I heard from more than one laid-off museum worker that they were looking for a job with Trader Joe’s, one of the few companies that continued to hire workers during the first months of the pandemic. Hundreds of artists, academics and arts workers have pleaded with museums to retain their workers through various petitions and open letters in vain, and millions in Paycheque Protection Program (PPP) loans to museums did not help save the livelihoods of these workers.
After the cold-blooded murders of George floyd and breonna taylor and the historic demonstrations that followed, I saw museums scrambling to issue statements of solidarity with the protesters. One after another, they failed miserably. Big museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Getty Museum in Los Angles were forced to apologize for social media posts that used works and quotes from black artists but failed to address directly the fight to the death against racism. And at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), the deletion of a critical comment from a former worker on an Instagram post in support of Black Lives Matter and the subsequent disabling of all comments was an incident that quickly turned into a crisis that leads to the resignation of the museum’s deputy director of external relations, Nan Keeton. Shortly after, in July, SFMOMA’s senior curator Gary Garrel resigned following controversial comments he made about unwanted “reverse discrimination” of white male artists in the museum’s acquisition policy. And it is with the ephemeral and widely ridiculed Black Square social media campaign, in which many arts organizations have participated. All of this made me wonder if these calcified institutions are irrecoverable and should be completely dismantled and handed over to local communities.
The massive Black Lives Matter protests across the country shook me with my cynicism and charged me with hope for change. I will never forget the supermarket worker, an older black woman, on the sidelines of one of the protests in New York. She was taking her lunch break on a bench outside the supermarket when thousands of protesters passed by. “Talk about Emmett Till,” she cried over and over.
During this period, there were two other stories of injustice that touched me personally. One concerns Jill Nelsen, a 67-year-old journalist who was arrested, brutalized and held in prison cell for five hours after scribbling “Trump = Plague” in chalk on a boarded up storefront in upper Manhattan. “It was a horrible, abusive and petty experience,” Nelson told me. “I honestly think, as an African American woman and a person of color, this is the season open to all of us, the disproportionate number of people dying from COVID-19, the people in the worst care. health, from people who are doing the most vulnerable jobs, to young people beaten for not having supposedly taken social distance. ”
The second incident occurred two months later, when the artist and independent curator Kate bae, who is Korean-American, was brutally attacked by a stranger near Bryant Park in Manhattan. The attack came against the backdrop of a wave of xenophobic attacks against Asian Americans in correlation with the start of the pandemic. “People are yelling at me ‘come back to China’ or ‘hey, coronavirus’,” Bae said. “I face these attacks at least twice a week on the way to work. “
As protests against systemic racism and police brutality continued, we learned that police routinely use social media footage of protests to capture and arrest activists. In response, we published an article on a iPhone shortcut which allows users to blur their faces and erase metadata from photos they post to the Internet. Noah Conk, the digital activist who developed the shortcut, later told me that thousands of people have used the tool to protect themselves from police surveillance.
Despite its myriad cruelties, the past year has taught us that change is always possible, even against all odds. The struggle for justice and equality permeates the art world and shakes the buildings of distant institutions. Across the world, racist monuments that celebrated slavery, looting and genocide were either abducted by the authorities or demolished by demonstrators.
Having said that, it has been an exhausting year. It is no wonder that many of us have clung to the dubious mystery of the steel “monoliths”Which arose (and quickly disappeared) across the world to distract us from our woes. Either way, trust me: don’t fall asleep watching Cuomo’s Covid briefings.