Opinion

COVID-19 Pandemic Sheds New Light on Access to the Arts

We’ve seen an increase in online programming as museums close to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus. One arts administrator ponders how we can maintain this accessibility, and how it is colored by race and class.

A data visualization by Mona Chalabi, depicting the composition of a US museum collection if it were to represent the entire population. 189 figures would need to be added: 79 white women; 26 Latinx women; 18 black women; seven Asian women; five women of another race/ethnicity; 22 Latinx men; 16 black men; 12 white men; and four men of another race/ethnicity. (image courtesy Mona Chalabi)

 

By now, we’ve either dance-partied, group-meditated, held staff meetings, or participated in language, cooking, or drawing lessons remotely (or even done all of the above). As we try to stay connected to the world through screens, the range of virtual offerings is undoubtedly rich. And while many of us remain confined, virtual experiences will play a key role in dismantling barriers to entry and providing access — to everything from grocery stores to museums. More than ever, social media platforms and email newsletters provide daily invitations to explore exhibition halls, or to take a peek at museums’ tucked away treasures, or to even enter into works of art themselves. And although many of these virtual tools were available long before the museum doors were closed, the steering to, and the awareness of, these resources is unprecedented. As such, for some, a virtual tour might mark the first peek at what lies through the doors of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or the Louvre, or Tate. But will these spaces remain as inviting to the masses, if and when their doors re-open?

It’s not new for arts organizations to explore creative ways to build audiences. As the director of two arts spaces which are part of Black Studies at the University of Texas, access to the arts is an everyday concern. Yes, there are the altruistic motivators, i.e. the benefit of sharing the ineffable impact of art with as many people as possible. And there are the financial motivators, i.e. the larger the audience, the larger the potential for earned income and philanthropic support. When the list of the highest-funded aligns closely with highest-attended arts institutions, the link between funding and audience is clear — and it makes sense. Philanthropists want their investments to have wide-reaching effects. But if we consider the make-up of these audiences, how broad is the impact?

As the US’s racial and ethnic make-up becomes more diverse, a report by Andrew W. Mellon Foundation indicates that museums and arts organizations do not reflect the country’s changing demographic. When a 2015 Mellon study revealed the lack of diversity in museums, many institutions sought to address the issue. Some institutions aim to be transparent about their diversity and inclusion efforts. But the fact remains: museums’ predominantly white leadership reflect the predominantly white audiences.

Mona Chalabi, a data-journalist and artist whose own work examines diversity in the arts, interprets a report from the National Endowment for the Arts, like this: In one year, “white Americans were almost twice as likely as black or Hispanic Americans to have done at least one arts activity…” As such, the current closures mostly affect white museum-goers. And while the phenomenon of #Museumfromhome is well-intentioned, let’s note that the hashtag gained momentum only after museums closed their doors to their mostly white audiences.

Yet the increased need for new ways to experience the arts also stands to impact those who didn’t feel welcome in certain spaces before the pandemic struck. As Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, said in a New York Times op-ed, “I believe that museums have the responsibility to hold a mirror up to society.” To that end, as new measures present possibilities that might benefit all of us, arts administrators (myself included) need to check themselves. Specifically, in these three ways:

The mission statement check. Consider the tenets that support the institution’s mission. Whether encouraging an “ever-deeper understanding and enjoyment of modern and contemporary art” (like the Museum of Modern Art), or committing to show Americans “how their stories, their histories, and their cultures are shaped and informed by global influences” (like the National Museum of African American History and Culture), or connecting people “to creativity, knowledge, and ideas” (like the Met), every arts organization has — or should have — a road-map to success, shaped by their mission statement. The exhibitions, the programs, and the spaces are the tools used to achieve said success. COVID-19 has changed the contents of the toolkit, but our well-thought-out missions continue to serve as the backbone as we re-imagine new tools. For my own institution, while physical access is denied, we’re looking at new ways “to unpack timely social issues, through the arts” — because we have a responsibility to provide entry points to the ideas that drive us.

The truth-about-money check. Regardless of the ways by which arts organizations earn income — either through admission fees, or the sale of work, or gift shop merchandise, or generous donors — we are entangled in a struggling capitalist system. Because of the pandemic, the jostling exhibition schedules, halted arts shipments, and canceled events that intended to draw crowds, interest, and supporters, have brought the intersection of art institutions and capitalism into focus. Even if we work in non-commercial spaces, we can’t ignore that we are part of a money-making system. So what happens when that system is no longer reliable? With new stakes, and within a new framework, does the value of bringing art to the masses remain as critical? (I say yes, for the record.)

The gatekeeper check. As access to arts spaces is whittled down to virtual portals, the role of gatekeepers — those behind the scenes, and those who are public-facing — becomes increasingly critical. In the virtual world, visitors can’t skip galleries, or paintings, or shape their visits in the same way they might if they were actually moving about the space. And while online-offerings remedy a complete denial of access, virtual access tightens the rein on who gets to see what. With new attention turned to virtual art-offerings, these curated experiences make virtual art-goers more susceptible to one-sided interpretations — which could have a long-lasting negative impact on how we all appreciate art and culture. For gatekeepers, deciding what to share, and how it is shared, is a heavy responsibility.

Consider how the National Cowboy Museum jumped from 10,000 Twitter followers on March 17, to just under 306k followers today. On the surface, one could think that a pandemic has spawned new enthusiasm for all things cowboy. But more likely, the down-home dad-joke access to the museum’s collection — the public-facing gatekeeper — contributed to the growing interest. And with the door open to over 300k interested parties, comes responsibility in deciding what narratives to share about cowboy life.

Artist Deborah Roberts, in a recent phone call, told me, “There’s nothing like seeing a work of art in person. Seeing the brushstrokes and the range of technique gives you a better sense of the artist’s ideas and intentions. But for now, we have to make do with what we have.” She’s right. #Museumfromhome can’t replace the smell of a gallery, or catching a glimpse of yourself in the reflection of museum glass. But if we continue to check ourselves we might be better equipped to serve all audiences, in an ever-changing world.

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