For the lay art museum-goer, here’s a set of all-too-familiar guidelines. Stand a couple feet away. Do not cough, do not sneeze. And definitely make sure not to touch. The guidelines we have always abided by as museum visitors are now preventative measures, common health practices, and small movements to save a life during this current global pandemic. To stand a couple of steps behind the red rope becomes six feet away from a passerby down the street — and perhaps even more, if you’re able to take the extra precaution to self-isolate. To not cough or sneeze on an artwork becomes an instinctual urge to hoard N95 masks and avoid any risks altogether. Amidst the pandemic, our art-viewing procedures have been translated into ones far more measurable and pressing. As cognizant citizens, we see ourselves abiding by them, avoiding visits to galleries, shows, fairs, and other artistic spaces. Unfortunately, as the spread of disease restricts our contact with art, we also lose the ample comfort that comes with it.
For the lay art museum-goer, visiting such a place offers a unique experience in that we find ourselves healed by appreciating aesthetic objects. According to a review published by Frontiers in Psychology, emotional responses to art have been shown to be associated with decreased stress as well as neurological responses involved in pleasure and reward. After all, we seem to find ourselves in awe of the beyond-sheer technical finesse of the Sistine Chapel ceiling (How did Michaelangelo manage to paint on a twenty-meter-tall surface?), much more the universal — and mathematically sound — beauty of the Mona Lisa. Our eyes somehow interpret the jagged shapes of Picasso’s Guernica as humanoid figures; The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali fishes out our visceral movement through time. In a way, recognizing the sublimity of our perceptions of such diverse representations of our humankind can be comforting. Art, in all its unworldliness, has always been there for us. It has served its venerable duty as a keeper of the ages, accurately representing beliefs of the past as well as aspirations for the future. It has served as an outlet for the stifled, the inquisitive, the back-broken hard-workers trying to find meaning in life — sentiments that perhaps all of us can empathize with. And from this, we may realize that in our shared existence, we are not alone.
While the pandemic has momentarily curbed our interactions with physical art, we are indeed not alone. Several artistic institutions have taken initiatives to re-bridge the public with many of their works. B.F.A (Bachelor of Fine Arts) and M.F.A (Master of Fine Arts) students across the nation have established online galleries to showcase thesis pieces. A website conceived by graduating photography students at the Rhode Island School of Design carries links to 75 student exhibitions. Alone Together, presented by Steve Turner, presents works created in isolation by 24 students of the Columbia University M.F.A graduating class.
Museums such as the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA), the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), and more — check in locally — have had online exhibitions incorporated into their websites. But beyond the expansive glimpse into each total collection (the Philadelphia Museum of Art introduces more than half of its around 240,000 total pieces), museum teams have additionally taken care to make the concept of art as intimate as possible. MoMA, for example, has introduced a rich set of free online courses on Cousera, a virtual learning platform. The Guggenheim Museum has scheduled month-to-month online tours and activities for kids, teens, and families, including Sketch With Jeff (teaching artist Jeff Hopkins tells and sketches stories about the Frank Loyd Wright building while introducing prompts to participants) and Little Guggs (young artists explore works from the Guggenheim collection and then create their own art).
The broader social media landscape has also weaved in historical artworks to a modern flurry of “internet challenges.” The Instagram account Tussen Kunst & Quarantaine (Dutch for “Between Art & Quarantine”) has popularized the recreation of famous art pieces using household items and a far-reaching imagination.
Even as art students and museums face what appears to be an insurmountable future regarding sparse job opportunities and hundreds of millions of lost revenue, their creations trudge on. During these isolating times, art has found a safe space online, apart from the chaos outside. For the lay art museum go-er, the online world provides an unbridled set of artistic resources to entertain, pique, and soothe the mind — perhaps we can console ourselves there.