First it was the galleries, when, under retail classification, galleries got the go-ahead from Gov. Inslee to hawk and show off their wares back in July. Then, two weeks ago, museums across the state were also cleared for opening in Phase 2 counties, with some already gearing up to reopen later this week.
Galleries and museums located on the city's college campuses are at a unique crossroads. While the state says museums can reopen under strict guidelines, the main purpose of a college museum is to serve its student body. How do museums serve students if students aren't on campus?
"We're in a moment of reinvention," reflected Emily Zimmerman, director and curator at Jacob Lawrence Gallery (JLG) at the University of Washington, which is located inside the School of Art + Art History + Design. JLG functions as a neat educational bubble that prepares undergrads and grad students—as adequately as possible—for the systems they might encounter out in the real world. But the pandemic changed all of that. UW classes will be held almost completely online this quarter.
Nowadays, JLG's gallery remains closed. Zimmerman and the gallery team are actively working to create a structure that honors students' education while also making sure no one gets the 'rona.
One such manifestation is Lux Aeterna, an exhibition about "technological obsolescence" that was originally planned to take place in the gallery. It has turned into a year-long research project that will culminate in a show—in 2021. Seattle artist Stefan Leandro Gonzales's show Dare to Judge will now take place as a livestreamed exhibition inside a gallery Gonzales built in their home. Art is adapting.
Enough projects have been able to come together that Zimmerman said she doesn't feel like JLG lost programming. Still, the in-person experience will be missed.
“As much faith as one can have in technology, I don't think we're ever going to get to a place where digital galleries are able to overtake those aspects of embodied experience,” she said. “And I'm grateful for that.”
Hedreen Gallery on Seattle University's campus near Capitol Hill finds itself in a similar situation. When the university went virtual in the spring, an exhibition—Abstractions of Black Citizenship: African American Art from Saint Louis—had works that were already being shipped to the gallery.
Exhibition curator and SU professor Jasmine Mahmoud, SU Galleries curator Molly Mac, and students had to scramble to adapt the show to work online. Mac said the pivot involved a lot of "on the fly brainstorming."
In the months since, Seattle University has decided to truncate their fall quarter, ending it right after Thanksgiving break so students don't have to shuttle between school and home again. That doesn't leave much time for in-person art programs.
Though the pandemic is obviously a hindrance to students' health and education, both Zimmerman and Mac see it as an opportunity to engage with students about what goes into creating a gallery space. This is a time for students and faculty to question the world they live in, from accessibility to compensation to flexibility. There will be a lot of room for growth for galleries after the pandemic.
The Henry Art Gallery located right on the edge of UW's campus, however, works differently than Hedreen and Jacob Lawrence Gallery. Though it exists as a student resource, it's also a fully fledged museum with its own collection of contemporary art. Because of its museum status, the Henry was only cleared to reopen a few weeks ago. While other Seattle museums are taking this opportunity to swing open their doors and shepherd the masked masses in, the Henry is taking the opposite approach.
Rather than operating with limited hours, reduced capacity, and one-way galleries, the Henry plans to turn its focus outward this fall. The museum announced on Wednesday that it will collaborate with other arts organizations to commission public art projects around the city. Curators hope the museum will be "both nimble and responsive to our world’s emerging issues and contexts" by shifting focus away from its building.
"The Henry isn't the size of the Burke or SAM and isn't able to accommodate the numbers and the frequency of hours that a larger museum might," said Shamim Momin, Director of Curatorial Affairs at the Henry. "We wanted to really think of ourselves specifically. What do we normally do and where? Who do we reach and how can we still provide that in a way that's meaningful?"
The hope with this public art approach—which could take the form of bus billboards, festivals, video projections, drive-ins, etc.—is that the museum can reach new spaces and audiences.
"Obviously we lose things from not being in-person, but in other ways, we gain some really interesting potential for access," said Momin.
For the past month, a public art installation has been happening right outside the Henry's front doorstep. In August, the UW Black Lives Matter coalition hosted a daily public art protest centered around the university's George Washington statue. The group called for the statue's removal and brought attention to six other demands presented by the school's Black Student Union. UW administration has largely remained mum on the issue.
The Henry tells me it has "begun conversations" with UW community members "about how programming might be shaped to address this topic." We'll be following along.