I hover over the highlighted text on the City’s website for the Albuquerque Museum of Art: Click to enter the exhibition. I pause, click, and then see the familiar atrium of the museum focused on the doors of the special exhibitions gallery—rendered digitally as blocky and illustrative, accurately suggesting that here you are, but not exactly. The doors don’t open; instead, the camera passes straight through them and gives me a zoomed-out view of Trinity: Reflections on the Bomb.
While the show was curated by Joseph Traugott well before COVID-19 reached the life-changing breadth it has today, the promotional images of Naomi Bebo’s Beaded Mask—an Iraqi gas mask embellished with beads and deer hide, trimmed with ribbon and ermine—create a slant analogy with public life today. This is the only way that the work in the exhibition can currently be viewed, a safety measure put in place to allow for social distancing without sacrificing access to culture.
Fully digital exhibitions are just one means that institutions have developed in response to ongoing closures. “When Southwestern Association for Indian Arts made the difficult decision to cancel the 99th Indian Market because of COVID, we knew that it wasn’t an option to ‘sit it out’ for a year,” explained the organization’s PR and marketing director, Amanda Crocker. That sentiment seems to be echoed throughout the state as major institutions and events pivot toward a model that will allow them to persist in the face of uncertainty.
As artists rise to the occasion, creating the work that will reflect this unique time back to us and to future generations, institutions too are tasked with creating channels for our culture bearers to access more resources and have their necessary voices amplified.
For example, 516 Arts in downtown Albuquerque launched its Museum from Home: Resilience project in mid-March to create a sense of global connectivity despite the necessity of isolation. In it, artists from any location submit a single artwork for digital display across the nonprofit art space’s channels. The curators specifically requested works that speak to their habits to stay inspired. In their online gallery and square-by-square via Instagram scroll are works that both respond directly to the pandemic and those that are suggestive of the experience of wading through it. Within the digital space are the likes of Mexico City artist Catalina Delgado-Trunk’s Cyclical Time, an intricately cut work in paper that uses 2012’s Mayan calendar predictions as a jumping-off point for a powerful meditation on time. In a moment when, as Kierkegaard (for me, via Parul Sehgal’s “In Search of Time Lost and Newly Found” in the New York Times) noted, “time itself is the task,” Delgado-Trunk’s exploration of the calendar, endings, and ongoingness takes on a profundity hard to imagine it would’ve had even on December 21, 2012.
Relevance is another element of the shift in institutional and organizational arts and cultural offerings this summer. The necessity of migrating exhibitions, thesis shows, lectures, fairs, and other events to online platforms may ultimately confer greater legitimacy to works exhibited and sold online, which may then lead to greater accessibility to more markets for artists and patrons alike. Even creatives who are simply seeking an audience will find more opportunities.
“Our mission has ultimately become more expansive,” Stuart Ashman, CEO of the International Folk Art Market in Santa Fe, said. The market—a summertime staple drawing in thousands of artists and visitors from around the globe—has moved its entire programming online this year. It’s a space the staff and board of directors had long wanted to make use of and are now committed to seeing become comprehensive, serving a larger population sheerly by way of the openness of the platform. With all workshops, lectures, panels, and presentations online and offered free of charge, attendance still won’t likely reach the critical mass of the “real deal,” though it’s likely that the market will draw in a new audience. “That’s a silver lining,” Ashman said.
Crocker pointed to a similar expansion of Indian Market’s core mission. “We saw this as a time to not just simply incorporate some e-commerce, but to truly expand the way Native artists reach broader and more diverse audiences,” she explained, elaborating on more integrative programs for artists on marketing and business, as well as 31 days of educational programming for the broader community in this year’s digital iteration of the market.
Indeed there are many silver linings to greater equity and access to culture, education, and art, but it’s hard to put your finger on what exactly is lost in a virtual environment without resorting to cliché. As I scrolled through the galleries of the Albuquerque Museum’s exhibition while sitting at the kitchen table in my pajamas, I felt the experience was muted. More akin to a morning scroll through Instagram than a visit to the museum. I find that when I read or write about art that I’m tuned in to the atmosphere—the quality of light, the noises, the hush of other patrons in the gallery, who was there, what conversations we had. Those social qualities are often what emphasize an exhibition’s meaning and what makes them prone to the unexpected—to the flashes of magic that make a piece, exhibition, or event unforgettable.
“The celebration aspect of being together, we’ve lost,” Ashman explained. “That spiritual connection. None of that will happen.” While this period of tragedy and unrest on a global scale may rob us of those opportunities to gather in the established ways, the lull too can be charged with meaning. “In this country, as we struggle to shift our values to become more inclusive, the work of artists as culture bearers is something we can’t ignore,” Crocker noted. “In fact, it is something to look towards for inspiration and validation.”
As institutions meet history head-on, this departure from business-as-usual offers a meaningful pause. An opportunity to rethink practices, build out programming (online and, in the future, off), and center equity in every branch of operations. As artists rise to the occasion, creating the work that will reflect this unique time back to us and to future generations, institutions too are tasked with creating channels for our culture bearers to access more resources and have their necessary voices amplified. “We’re not doing a market,” as Ashman summarized, “but we haven’t forgotten about the community.” With such a sense of accountability and purpose at heart, support for the arts across New Mexico ensures the ongoingness of its reach and vitality.