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Small Consolation: Museums’ Hit-&-Miss Attempts to Engage Audiences Via “Virtual Exhibitions” UPDATED

When I returned home Mar. 12 from my proud-grandma visit to California (where I had what was probably my last chance for some time to cuddle my newborn granddaughter and her 3-year-old brother), I had to work my way through the announcements of museums’ temporary closures that flooded my art-centric inbox.

Eerily empty security lines for my half-empty Mar. 12 flight from San Francisco to Newark
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

As it now stands (four weeks later), no art museum would be so foolhardy as to remain open in defiance of stringent coronavirus stay-at-home directives. Public outreach, such as it is, has gone online to museums’ websites and social media platforms, with existing video tours and collection websites supplemented by new quarantine-inspired features, hastily cobbled together.

A good eclectic rundown of some virtual art exhibitions worth exploring was assembled by CBS News‘ “Sunday Morning.” These are all preexisting features that were intended to supplement, not replace, in-person visits to special exhibitions. In his recent Staying Inside Guide to museums, Eric Gibson, editor of the Wall Street Journal‘s “Arts in Review” page, opted to feature curators lecturing about objects or displays in their museums’ collection.

Curators, with their insights into and passion for the objects in their care, are the heroes of my CultureGrrl blog. For that reason, Eric’s approach struck me as a good one, until I clicked on his links and snoozed: I realized that what I was seeing online—art historians droning to video cameras that pan up and down, and left to right over featured artworks—was far less engaging than the lively curatorial tours that I’ve been privileged to experience in person during my lifetime of attending press previews.

Screenshot from Baltimore Museum of Art’s 2014 video (linked to in the WSJ piece) of veteran curator Jay Fisher (who retired Mar. 31) staring into space while elucidating Matisse’s “The Yellow Dress” from the Cone Collection

Too much of museums’ existing online content, now being repurposed as a way to enjoy museums at home when you can’t be there in person, reminds me of “park and bark”—the great opera stars of yesteryear, standing stock-still at center stage and belting out their arias without conveying the emotional essence of the music.

By contrast, I found much to admire in purpose-built content that a few enterprising museums managed to put together on the fly to offer sustenance to art lovers who are unexpectedly isolated. Especially engaging are the National Gallery of Art’s long Twitter threads, focusing on one gallery each day. They start with a silent video panorama, showing all the art in that room, and then zero in on specific works, accompanied by compelling written commentary, hi-res images and down-to-the-brushstrokes close-ups:

Detail from National Gallery of Art’s van Gogh, “Self-Portrait,”1889
Screenshot from National Gallery of Art’s Twitter thread

Part of my delight in these features on @NGADC’s Twitter feed came from their evocation of my own fond memories of wandering through those galleries in person. I came for the nostalgia but stayed for the content, which I found to be both deep and concise. Have a look at the feature that celebrated van Gogh on his birthday (Mar. 30), by clicking here and then scrolling down through the series of linked tweets.

Anabeth Guthrie, the NGA’s communications chief, explained to me how her team had scrambled to put these episodes together:

We’ve taken to all our social media channels (Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter) to give our audiences in-depth daily tours of the permanent collection and exhibitions. In the days before we closed, our communications team quickly captured new video and photography of dozens of rooms and art with videos of curators highlighting their favorites. Since then, we’ve worked with colleagues across departments to research and craft the tours from home.

We’re doing a new tour a day, and some of the content we pull from pre-existing (perfectly accurate/good) places on our platforms, such as the above. Retired or former staff will sometimes appear or have written that content.

We’ve seen significant engagement on all of our platforms, with thousands of new followers tuning in for the daily tours. Overwhelmingly, their response has been “thank you.”

To which I add my own Thank You!

The Getty Museum also scrambled (with similar success) to put together Last-Minute Michelangelo, shooting short videos of its briefly opened, prematurely shuttered exhibition, Michelangelo: Mind of the Master. This video blitz was accomplished “in the last few hours we had at the Getty Museum before all staff left the building as part of Los Angeles’s safer at home initiative,” according to the blog post (linked at the top of this paragraph) by Julian Brooks, the museum’s senior curator of drawings, who pronounced himself “terrified of being filmed.”

You’d never guess that from his poised, authoritative, yet personable delivery on this Twitter thread. (But will someone please get this guy a smartphone upgrade? His commentary was shot on his iPhone 5 SE.)

Here’s one of the eight brief but (literally) meaty videos posted on the Getty’s website and on social media:

Another digital offering now being touted as a way to “explore key themes of exhibitions and installations through stories, videos, animations, and more” is the Metropolitan Museum’s Primers feature, developed under the auspices of its tech-friendly director, Max Hollein. Originally intended to whet people’s appetite for the main course—an in-person visit—it comes across as strong on production values, weak in content.

A little slow out of the gate, the Museum of Modern Art tomorrow plans to unveil “Virtual Views,” a weekend feature that will “take you inside an exhibition or a favorite artwork from the collection through video stories and curator Q&As, as well as audio playlists and feature articles.” You can see the April schedule here. I’ve marked my calendar for the Apr. 23 “virtual exhibition exploration” of the Donald Judd show that I missed when it briefly appeared before the museum shutdown.

UPDATE (4/9): Here’s my Twitter commentary on what today went online about MoMA’s “Virtual Views”:

If your idea of torture is being forced to watch other people’s home movies, don’t fail to miss @MuseumModernArt’s first installment of “Virtual Views” for the quarantined #MuseumsFromHome which proves that even Dali & Copland can be boring!

— Lee Rosenbaum (@CultureGrrl) April 9, 2020

And here’s MoMA’s webpage for its “Home Movies” online exhibition, with the film clips.

Truth be told, the best cultural solace for me while in semi-solitary confinement at home (with my husband) comes from listening to music, not from pseudo-experiences of the visual arts in reproduction, which can never rise to the level of standing in front of the actual objects.

A similar sentiment was expressed by the New Yorker‘s veteran art critic, Peter Schjeldahl, in his recent meditation on art and mortality—an article in which he also revealed that his own report in December of his imminent demise was (thankfully!) premature:

Online “virtual tours” add insult to injury, in my view, as strictly spectacular, amorphous disembodiments of aesthetic experience.

As I stated in this Twitter thread:

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