I think I forgot how to look at art inside of a museum.
After more than a year without stepping into a big art museum, I broke the seal this March by going to the Seattle Art Museum to see the groundbreaking painter Jacob Lawrence’s buzzy Struggle series.
I expected to do the usual: spend lots of time surveying Lawrence's brushstrokes, or reading the text-heavy museum labels that accompany each of his 30 panels, or noticing the energy of his work as it related to other artists in the show.
But instead, I went into a sensory black hole.
Rather than booking it up to the special exhibition space where Jacob Lawrence’s pieces were, I found myself in the museum's other rooms, gawking at Joan Mitchell’s “The Sink” and examining the mother figure sculptures of West Africa.
Had that Georges de la Tour painting always been so tender? Or that Akio Takamori sculpture so solemn? My mind was a mess. Good Critic Impulses were apparently left in March of 2020.
Maybe it was the soft lighting or the murmur of other visitors milling around the building. Do you remember what it was like to be inside the white noise of a thoughtful crowd?
Maybe my smooth-brained wandering could be blamed on the preciousness of the objects behind their glass cases. Since when did this Cycladic female figure look exactly like how I feel?
I’d only just gotten to Lawrence’s show when a museum staff member told me I had 15 minutes before the museum closed. I panicked and thought about running around the show a la Bande à part, seeing what I could as quickly as I could.
I had to come back the next day. There were too many connections. Too many emotions. I underestimated how overstimulating everything would be after so much isolation.
We've spent more than a year apart from each other, siloed in our germ bubbles, and we’ve fundamentally changed our relationship to viewing and experiencing art. But to understand where we’re at now, I think we should remember how we got here.
In the early weeks of the pandemic, we thought quarantine was temporary. We’ll lick doorknobs by Pride, I remember texting my friends in March. No need to fundamentally shift our lives for a problem that would be gone by summer.
But when I got back into my critic’s seat in May after a two-month furlough, I returned to an art world deeply changed by a pandemic that seemed permanent.
Museums, galleries, and arts spaces were struggling. “It has cut so deep so fast,” the arts liaison in King County Executive Dow Constantine’s office, Kate Becker, told The Stranger’s Rich Smith in March. City leaders were just trying to clot the bleeding arts sector's losses during the pandemic's early days.
The sudden shutdowns hit the self-employed particularly hard, specifically Black and of-color artists. Most of them couldn’t depend on unemployment to make up for their total loss of income. Mutual aid and funds like The Seattle Artist Relief Fund (SARF) helped make up that gap for many artists in the city. Though, as of this writing, SARF still does not have enough money for everyone who applied.
“As artists, we live and work closer to the fault lines,” performer Chad Goller-Sojourner told Crosscut’s Margo Vansynghel last April when asked about how he was making it through the pandemic. “It’s not like we have $10,000 or $15,000 in our bank accounts. We’re all kind of broke.”
A recent ArtsFund survey of arts organizations in the region found that they suffered a 42% decrease in grand total income, with 56% of respondents saying they “had staff furloughed or laid-off” due to the pandemic. At least 5,000 culture workers in Seattle have lost their jobs, and more than half of the arts organizations surveyed by Crosscut this March said they don't have enough funds to cover operating expenses for the next six months.
These losses of funding and artists’ work have already impacted how we look at things here in Seattle. Crucial creative people in the city lost their jobs or commissions, unable to sustain their artistic practices. Viewers didn’t get to tune in to soul-rocking art experiences. And in the absence of live events, remaining artists and art workers tried to shift and adapt experiences to become COVID-safe.
In that first month, we all wrote a lot about murals on boarded-up businesses. It seemed like one of the only avenues to support viewing artists' work in person while staying safe. But Zoom soon became a cornerstone of the artistic experience in Seattle. While the company had little name recognition before the pandemic, I don’t have to tell you that Zoom became integral to how we worked, connected with friends and family, looked at art, partied, and even fucked strangers. Art museums and galleries in the city hopped on that trend, scrambling to restructure their programming for this new virtual world.
The Henry Art Gallery brought Re/frame—a monthly series that explores objects in the museum’s collection—to the video conferencing platform, opening the discussion from just local participants to global ones. Anyone could listen to a curator expound on the art of the triptych without leaving their bed. The Frye Art Museum created Zoom backgrounds of their iconic salon room, so you could signal to work colleagues that you, too, enjoyed art.
Galleries also hopped on this Zoom wave, and no one probably did and does it better than Wa Na Wari, a Black arts space in the Central District. Early on they shifted to Zoom, incorporating performance art, film screenings, and artist talks into their virtual offerings. Though their space is rooted in creating a sense of belonging for Black artists, the crew behind Wa Na Wari understood that virtually looking at something wasn’t necessarily the same as viewing the work in person.
“It's an experience that you just miss viscerally in your body because there's nothing else that replaces looking at visual art,” Wa Na Wari co-founder Elisheba Johnson told me in a recent phone interview. “Which was why the majority of our online programming is performance art, because we thought that translated well.”
Back in May, I sheepishly ate forkfuls of dinner off-camera while watching Wa Na Wari visiting artist Autumn Knight invite Seattleites to participate in her virtual Zoom performance. It explored Seattle as a place and what it means to eat food with other people. I don’t remember the performance as much as I remember clicking around into every participant's room, still amazed at consuming art through this weird platform.
While virtual galleries, viewing rooms, and Instagram-only art series existed before the pandemic, they became crucial for the city's arts. In early May, the Seattle-based arts journal New Archives called on readers to submit their musings of artworks that were already hanging in their homes, in lieu of being able to go out into the world and review art in museums and galleries. They posted some of these Art at Home reviews on their now mostly defunct Instagram. It was interesting to see how people curated their own homes and the space they made for a Klimt print or framed embroidery piece.
“Everyone's talking about how much TV and music we're consuming [in isolation],” New Archives editor Satpreet Kahlon told Crosscut’s Vansynghel at the time. “But then there's this art on our walls that we're also spending so much time with in a different way than we ever anticipated.”
And though virtual galleries hosted by IRL galleries are really nothing more than fancy web landing pages for images of art, Seattle gallery Winston Wachter’s online exhibition space was how I discovered the work of Seattle-based artist Etsuko Ichikawa.
Her glass pyrographs, which she makes by dragging molten pieces of glass across paper, looked delicate even through a screen. The way the paper traced the motion of the hot glass was a welcome respite from the images and websites that normally occupied my screen. And because the internet facilitated the viewing of this work, I had immediate access to watching Ichikawa’s process on other platforms like YouTube—an experience I couldn’t have in the same way by just seeing her work in a gallery.
Despite these connections, virtually experiencing art felt lacking. I’d usually log off the Zoom or exit the viewing room or shut down Instagram and would again be confronted with my loneliness. Screens make connecting hard.
But you know this. We've suffered this horrible isolation together.
For many people in Seattle, the virtual world paused in June, when massive protests followed the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black, Indigenous, Latino, and Asian people across the country. Blast balls and furious crowds replaced days of seeing no one. And then came the Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP), formed in the days after the Seattle Police Department unexpectedly vacated the East Precinct.
The early days of CHOP were a cyclone. Protesters and neighborhood residents endured days of cop hostilities, suffering from aggressive arrests, blast balls, and tear-gassing. 11th and 12th along Pine felt like the aftermath of a warzone—and the East Precinct was abandoned. "They gave us this precinct, and we’re not going to destroy this motherfucker,” one speaker said, standing outside the East Precinct on the first night of CHOP, directing others not to break inside.
Once things settled, it was clear the police weren’t planning on reclaiming their empty police station—at least not immediately. No city official would even take direct responsibility for ordering the clearing of the precinct. The unofficial-official sentinels of the six-block radius put up roadblocks.
With no single leader came the hard task of figuring out what to do next. People sprawled out on couches. "Conversation cafes" were formed to talk about racism, imperialism, and colonialism. Speakers, poets, and musicians took turns on a mic outside the freshly dubbed Seattle “People’s” Department. White tourists from the suburbs videotaped Black people at random. No one was responsible for anything they did not want to be responsible for.
And in that environment, art appeared. It played a key role in creating the culture of CHOP, an area previously blasted by police violence. The "police-free" zone became one of Seattle’s defining art “events” of 2020.
Not even a week after getting trapped by cops inside The Stranger’s offices, I watched the block-long Black Lives Matter mural slowly come together from those same windows. The 16 BIPOC members of the newly formed Vivid Matter Collective carefully painted the base layer to top layer as the city watched. Other cities have carried out similar projects, but Seattle’s was different. Not only was it artist-led—as opposed to city-approved—but its message hit differently next to a vacated police precinct. It seemed to reflect the moment's hopeful and radical spirit.
"What’s happening right now should not be forgotten,” one of the anonymous organizers told the Seattle Times’ Jim Brunner. “The best-case scenario is that this will stay here forever, and the city helps us touch it up each year or whatever to make sure it does.”
The mural would eventually become mired in controversy after an unaffiliated artist put an unauthorized top layer of sealant on it, leading to the city removing the original mural months later and the artists coming back to repaint it. But at the time, the mural felt participatory and constructive.
If you stood near it and looked north, you could see the huge, crudely constructed Black Power fist strapped to the baseball cage on Bobby Morris Playfield. Carpenter Jon Top, who is white, organized the project and told me that the fist “resonated” with him. He said he wanted to give something back to the nascent community forming at CHOP. Using a shit ton of human power (and a crane), Top and his crew installed the sculpture one balmy June evening as Schoolly D’s “Am I Black Enough for You?” blared through speakers in the background.
Artists didn’t need grants or fellowships to carry out their artistic vision in CHOP. These events and art pieces lived in the context of graffiti art, which proliferated on nearly every surface of the zone. Even the bathrooms got a BLM makeover from a duo who said they were looking to give back to the community. When the city controversially installed concrete barriers down Pine to allow emergency vehicle traffic, someone used a stencil of George Floyd to spray paint just his eyes on several panels across the area, giving a kind of watchfulness.
Like everything about the zone, it was what you made of it. After months of being trapped at home, viewing art felt abstract to me. But here, in a moment when people ostensibly came together to protest the murder of Black people by police (and the existence of the police itself), art seemed tangible, playing a role in some people's healing and organizing.
It felt centering. And then, of course, it spiraled.
THE GREAT SCRUBBING
CHOP came to an end through the city whittling away its boundaries and gun violence. The deaths of two people were intolerable. On July 1, the mayor ordered SPD and city crews to reclaim the blocks that made up CHOP. They aggressively kicked out or arrested its residents and participated in what I've called the great scrubbing.
I tried to get as many pictures of the space as it was: the pink umbrellas and entrance signs, the names and faces of Black and Indigenous people killed by police posted to boarded-up businesses. Over the next few days, we watched as the Seattle Department of Transportation and Parks Department diligently removed the graffiti, Black Power fists, painted boards, murals, and vigils that decorated the zone. They packed up Top’s fist and a “George Floyd Way” street sign and drove off. CHOP’s end always seemed to be waiting in the wings, but it felt uniquely cruel to watch the city power-wash away graffiti that demanded "BLACK TRANS LIVES MATTER."
Much of the painted panels, posters, and other ephemera are now the subject of a dispute between different factions of CHOP Art board members who each claim ownership over the items. The clearest example of art that the city commited to keeping was the giant Black Lives Matter mural, which is now protected by yellow traffic barriers and a stop sign.
But CHOP’s influence remained in Seattle’s arts communities, which continued to struggle with pandemic closures and inequities.
Partially inspired by the art at CHOP, the University of Washington’s Black Lives Matter chapter organized a month-long art installation and protest that called for the removal of the campus’s giant bronze statue of George Washington. To them and UW’s Black Student Union, the monument of our first president looking westward “symbolizes a man who owned over 300 Black slaves and profited from their labor.”
"No one's going to truly be held accountable unless there's a constant public eye on things," an anonymous UW BLM representative told me at the time. "I think that's UW BLM's role here. Really actively trying to teach art, teach the public, and make people aware of what's going on."
They facilitated banner making, chalk art, poetry readings, and performances that reflected their feelings about the university’s treatment of BIPOC students. Every day, they would put art on or around the statue, and every day, as the city had done with CHOP, the university would remove it, as is standard practice.
The statue still stands, but if you walk past old George, you don’t even have to look closely to see some of the messages students and supporters painted during this month-long installation. Some things are hard to scrub away.
THE NEXT REVOLUTION WILL NOT BE ZOOMED
After the summer's chaos, early fall felt promising for Seattle's arts communities. In mid-August, Gov. Inslee gave the state's museums the go-ahead to swing open their doors so long as they followed COVID restrictions. The art institution grind was back on—until just several weeks later when Inslee reordered their closure as coronavirus case levels started to rise. Museums, it seemed, were back at square one and in a more precarious financial situation than ever.
“The focus is on maneuvering this big institution through the toughest financial challenge it has ever had. For many museums across the country, this is an existential crisis,” CEO and Director of Seattle Art Museum Amada Cruz told me back in December while museums were still closed. “SAM is not in that position, but we're certainly not immune to the challenges.”
As we rounded the corner on one year of COVID, art in Seattle was at an inflection point. Zoom fatigue had set it. The weather was harsh.
“I don't really want to be running Zoom classes in 2023,” newly opened Museum of Museums (MoM) director Greg Lundgren told me over the phone. “That just doesn't sound fun.”
Though MoM spent a good part of the pandemic sorting out permitting issues that prevented the space from opening, Lundgren and his crew experimented with virtual ways of connecting. They hosted cooking and figure drawing classes over Zoom, but they didn’t jive with their overall vision of how they wanted people to experience art in Seattle.
Instead, Lundgren told me the pandemic helped them become assured in their role of “exporting ideas outside of the gallery.” While video and online content is part of that, MoM plans to put out MoM Sandwich, a biannual arts magazine highlighting contemporary Pacific Northwestern artists. He thinks coming back from the pandemic offers a good moment for galleries and art institutions to think big and beyond how the community used to function.
“I think there's a lot of opportunities for our art community to re-examine what we had and to decide if we want to go back to that,” he said. “I mean, I'm not looking at 2019 and being like, ‘Oh my God, I can't wait until we return to the art world that we had in 2019.’ I don't think that there's a lot of people saying that because I think we were a little anemic then.”
In a recent interview, Wa Na Wari’s Elisheba Johnson noted that people are hungry for art experiences after being so cut off from everyone else. Though the space doesn’t have as many visitors as it used to because of COVID restrictions, the people who do come through talk about how they want to be body-to-body in a packed gallery show, to come and process this past year together, in real life.
“I think everybody [goes to art shows] for their own personal healing, but they weren't able to,” said Johnson. “It wasn't part of my grief process to go figure out how to experience art and culture last year because it wasn't available to me in the way that I was used to—but I definitely needed it.”
Thinking about art's cathartic ability to process grief reminded me of something SAM Director Amada Cruz told me about a month ago. At that time, the Friday Foundation had just gifted the museum 19 20th-century abstract expressionist masterworks from the collection of the late Seattle-area collectors Richard E. Lang and Jane Lang Davis. It was an astonishing donation, and all of the works will go on display later this fall. Cruz thought the postwar moment many of these artists painted in connected to now, during a moment when light seems to appear at the end of this COVID tunnel.
In particular, Alberto Giacometti's sculpture, the tall and lonesome “Femme de Venise II,” was part of the Langs' gift that stood out to Cruz.
“It's very much a reaction to the horrors of World War II," Cruz told me. "To me, that figure is very much reflective of this particular moment, this extreme isolation we've all been in—the sense of loneliness and existential angst. I really think that piece is so much of this moment, even though it's such an old piece."
After hearing that, I've tried to imagine going to the museum and seeing Giacometti's work in real life. Maybe I will note the way its craggy, sharp body punctuates the air around it.
A BOOK, A ROSE
I made it back to the SAM the next day to attempt to look—really look—at Jacob Lawrence’s Struggle series. This time around, it was less of a black hole. I could feel my body remembering how to view something—a squint, a tension in my neck, a locking of my hip.
I settled in front of Panel 28, which Lawrence labeled “Immigrants admitted from all countries: 1820-1840—115,773.” The painting, which depicts three immigrants crammed together in the belly of a ship bound for America, was lost for decades until a New Yorker realized the missing painting had hung in her home for years. She harbored the work of a Black genius and didn't even know it.
Panel 28 is one of the few moments of reprieve in a series filled with struggle, violence, and bloodshed. Though these three subjects are likely to face hardship, racism, and conflict once they arrive on American shores, Lawrence chose to show them in a scene with quiet hope for an imagined future full of love.
But a note on the museum label piqued my interest. For decades, going off only a black and white photograph of the painting, scholars believed the man in the back held a blue prayer book. It was only during the panel’s rediscovery in full color that they found he was not holding a book. Instead, it was a blue vase potted with a single red rose—America’s national flower. A small but radical revelation, brought about by a different way of looking.