Back in February, I interviewed a Shanghai-based, American photographer who goes by the name nicoco for a story about her latest project — a photographic series depicting the eerily deserted streets, squares, malls, and airports of China’s second-largest city during the coronavirus outbreak. At the time, the virus had already hit 12 countries around the world but it hadn’t quite spread on a large scale in the United States, or at least that’s what we’d been told. The images showed how a bustling metropolis of 23.4 million people was rendered a ghost city overnight, even before an official lockdown was mandated.
“People are worried about getting sick, their loved ones getting sick, resource shortages, losing their salaries,” nicoco told me. “Broadly, months of hardship that are likely ahead.”
While writing that piece, I had no idea that a month later New York would become the epicenter of the disease in the US. I even asked nicoco if she thought that Western media was exaggerating the panic over the coronavirus outbreak in China, as some had argued. Oh, how wrong we all were.
In mid-March, Hyperallergic’s staff started working remotely from home, like many others. With ambulance sirens wailing outside my window every minute of the day, writing about art felt at times frivolous and irrelevant while thousands were dying or falling ill. I also developed the bad habit of falling asleep at night to reruns of Governer Cuomo’s daily COVID briefing performances, which certainly did not help ease the mounting anxiety.
And then the art world came to a halt with museums and galleries around the world shuttering and shifting to the virtual realm — which I still can’t get used to. Small galleries were hit hardest financially with several closing permanently and others facing threats from impatient landlords. As a partner in an artist-run space in Brooklyn, I experienced this crisis first hand as our small gallery hemorrhaged money each month it was closed. Like many other small and mid-size galleries, we didn’t qualify for state or federal aid because of stringent requirements that didn’t consider the ways we operate or gather our scant revenue.
During that difficult period, I drew comfort and inspiration from artists who have stepped up to ease the suffering of others, whether by donating protective gear to healthcare workers or offering gestures of gratitude to nurses and doctors in overwhelmed intensive care units. I was also heartened by relief efforts made by some arts organizations, especially the Queens Museum, which hosted a food pantry during its closure.
The pandemic also brought old art world maladies like institutional racism and income disparities into high relief. We’ve seen the lowest-paid museum workers, who were either furloughed or laid off, suffer the most from the shutdowns while generously compensated museum executives remained relatively unscathed, in most cases taking only symbolic pay cuts. From Tate Galleries in London to the Frye Museum in Seattle, a majority of affected workers are people of color. I’ve heard from more than one laid-off museum worker that they were seeking jobs at Trader Joe’s, one of the few businesses that kept hiring workers during the early months of the pandemic. Hundreds of artists, scholars, and art workers implored museums to retain their workers via different petitions and open letters to no avail, and millions in Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans to museums didn’t help to save the livelihoods of these workers.
After the cold-blooded murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the historic protests that followed, I saw museums scramble to release statements of solidarity with the protesters. One after the other, they failed abysmally. Large museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Getty Museum in Los Angles were forced to issue apologies for social media posts that used works and quotes by Black artists but failed to directly address the life-and-death struggle against racism. And at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), the removal of a former worker’s critical comment on an Instagram post in support of Black Lives Matter and the subsequent disabling of all comments was an incident that quickly evolved into a crisis that led to the resignation of the museum’s deputy director of external relations, Nan Keeton. Shortly later, in July, SFMOMA’s senior curator Gary Garrels resigned following controversial comments he made about unwelcomed “reverse discrimination” of white male artists in the museum’s acquisition policy. And that’s along with the short-lived and vastly ridiculed Black Square social media campaign, in which many arts organizations took part. This all made me wonder whether these calcified institutions are irredeemable and should be dismantled completely and handed over to local communities.
The massive Black Lives Matter protests around the country shook me out of my cynicism and charged me with hope for change. I’ll never forget the supermarket worker, an older Black woman, on the sidelines of one of the protests in New York. She was having her lunch break on a bench outside the supermarket when thousands of protesters passed by. “Talk about Emmett Till,” she cried repeatedly.
During that period, there were two other stories of injustice that personally touched me. One is about Jill Nelsen, a 67-year-old journalist who was arrested, roughed up, and held in a jail cell for five hours after scrawling “Trump=Plague” in chalk on a boarded-up storefront in upper Manhattan. “It was an awful, abusive, and petty experience,” Nelson told me. “I frankly feel, as an African-American woman and a person of color, that it’s open season on us in every way, from the disproportionate number of people who are dying of COVID-19, people with the worst healthcare, people who are doing the most vulnerable jobs, to young people beaten down for allegedly not social distancing.”
The second incident happened two months later, when artist and independent curator Kate Bae, who is Korean-American, was brutally attacked by an unknown man near Manhattan’s Bryant Park. The attack came against the backdrop of a surge of xenophobic attacks against Asian Americans correlating with the beginning of the pandemic. “People yell at me ‘go back to China’ or ‘hey, coronavirus’,” Bae said. “I face these attacks at least twice a week on my way to work.”
As the protests against systemic racism and police brutality continued, we learned that police are routinely using images of protests on social media to capture and arrest activists. In response, we published a story about an iPhone shortcut that allows users to blur their faces and wipe metadata from photos that they post on the internet. Noah Conk, the digital activist who developed the shortcut, later told me that thousands have used the tool to protect themselves from police surveillance.
Despite its myriad cruelties, the passing year taught us that change is always possible, even against the slimmest odds. The fight for justice and equality permeated the art world and shook the edifices of aloof institutions. Worldwide, racist monuments that celebrated slavery, plunder, and genocide were either removed by authorities or torn down by protesters.
That said, it’s been an exhausting year. It’s no wonder that many of us clung to the dubious mystery of the steel “monoliths” that popped up (and quickly disappeared) across the globe to distract ourselves from our woes. Whatever comes next, take it from me: Don’t go to sleep while watching Cuomo’s Covid briefings.
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