Finding Art in a Pandemic: A 21st Century Solution

Joshua White Finding Art header

 The Art Channel presenter Joshua White is encouraging about how we can find art during lockdown.

In this extraordinary year, our access to culture has been particularly badly affected. Live performances of music, theatre, dance and opera have all been cancelled in order to prevent the spread of Covid. In my own field of art, galleries and museums have also been forced to close their doors. This week I walked past the forlorn British Museum with all its treasures confined to darkness and felt a wistful sadness that museums and galleries which play such an important part of my life have been so badly disrupted or closed for almost a year. More importantly the restriction of culture impedes everyone’s education, entertainment and nourishment.

The premature closure of exhibitions this year has been a huge disappointment for curators and their audiences. Planning exhibitions can take several years to organise international loans, conduct the research and conservation, produce catalogues and design the display. Many exhibitions may offer a once in a lifetime opportunity to see paintings that were produced by the same hand, hung together again as they might have been in the artist’s studio.

But the huge rupture of Covid has prompted many museums to reconsider how the application of technology can provide ‘virtual access’ with enhanced education and interpretation. Some of these solutions to closures include three dimensional online routes, audio information, films and alternative vantage points while still enabling the ‘visitor’ to make choices as if they were physically in the room. The pandemic has accelerated exciting experiments with new, remote experiences of museums. 

Here are some that I recommend. Enjoy.

Joshua White is also a lecturer and writer on art and can be contacted at joshua@joshuaswhite.com 

Outdoor Museums & Sculpture Parks

A growing trend in the artworld is the creation of ‘outdoor’ museums, otherwise known as sculpture parks, which exhibit sculptures in the open air allowing the visitor to see them within nature. Sculpture is by definition a very physical experience. 

You become aware of a sculpture’s mass and weight, its materiality, texture, observing how light moves on and around the surface and how negative and positive space is expressed by the artist. You become aware of your own physical presence beyond passive sight of the object.

What happens then when you view a sculpture online? Perhaps sculpture can be never be properly represented in published images nevertheless sculpture can still be appreciated and understood in two-dimensional form.

One excellent sculpture park is the New Art Centre located close to Salisbury. It began as a commercial gallery in London’s Knightsbridge but later relocated to the country. It remains a private dealer so that works exhibited in the garden are available to purchase. 

The setting is more a garden than a park which lends the location more intimacy. The sculptures here are eclectic, ranging from Richard Long’s minimalist arrangement of found materials to Philip King’s more constructed, complex structures.

Sculpture Christopher Le Brun, Belvedere,
Christopher Le Brun, Belvedere, at New Art Centre Sculpture Park

 

Another prominent and successful ‘outdoor’ museum is the Yorkshire Sculpture Park close to Leeds where Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth first trained at art school. 

Set in a rolling, verdant 18th century park in a very rural location, the Yorkshire Sculpture Park is a very different encounter with art than being inside a gallery. The park exhibits permanent gits, commissions and additionally presents a series of changing exhibitions using loaned works. There are approximately 100 sculptures to
discover and explore in the large park.

At present you can view temporary exhibits such as one by Damien Hirst whose work is characteristically brash, witty and eager to address taboos like mortality and mechanical nature of the human body. On display is a large naked female figure titled ‘The Virgin Mother’ resembling a teaching model used in medical schools. This figure is disproportionally tall and anatomically dissected to show the child she is bearing. Built of bronze, the figure is painted to resemble the plastic of the original model.

Less well known to contemporary visitors, David Smith, was the American ‘Abstract Expressionist’, whose welded steel sculpture has a distinct, hard edged muscularity arising out of his experience working as a welder on the railroads. His exhibition is also presented online These pieces are not quotations or figurative like Hirst’s sculptures, but autonomous and self-referential, possessing a rather solemn and austere character.

A third option is the Cass Sculpture Foundation outside Chichester close to Goodwood House and racecourse. The environment here is woodland which creates an even greater sense of adventure as you walk through the trees until you find a clearing inhabited by a large artwork which often has a mysterious quality isolated in its own space, sometimes organic in nature and at other times incongruously artificial and extrovert.
Artists represented in the collection include post-war masters Eduardo Paolozzi and Lynn Chadwick. The park is a charitable foundation but some of the sculptures are can be acquired for those with big budgets although smaller more domestically scaled pieces resembling maquettes are for sale too.

This proximity to the natural world does not foreclose the option of seeing paintings, works on paper or more delicate ceramics because each of these sculpture parks has constructed an indoor gallery. These sculpture parks have extensive websites with photographs and information regarding past and present exhibitions and resources that allow you to learn more about artists and individual sculptures.
The pleasure of a sculpture park in the real world or online is the encounter with craft, materiality and thought embodied in an artwork placed in the natural world. These sculptures assert their qualities in each landscape and in a constantly evolving relationship with the weather, seasons and time.

Ben Uri Gallery & Museum, London

One of the great advantages of finding art online is that you can travel all over the world at no additional expense. Now it is possible to visit the Hermitage in St Petersburg or a commercial gallery in Mexico City for the price of an internet account. In Britain many of our greatest collections are held in London and viewers of the films I make for The Art Channel often complain that exhibitions are impossible to see owing to distance or lack of time. 

Ben Uri Gallery and Museum in North London is trying to change the whole model of traditional art institutions by aiming to become the first British virtual museum so that most of its activities take place online. Ben Uri began exhibiting and collecting Jewish artists inside an East London synagogue, but its home was sold in 1995 and it was forced to move to a gallery space which is roughly the same size as a small commercial gallery.

Ben Uri gallery and museum header

 

With its roots in providing exhibition space and support for Jewish artists from 1915, the museum has now widened its remit to focus on the experience of immigration and identity in Britain. This strategic shift has coincided with a broader evaluation to address how a museum could fulfil its role inside a building which is 1500 square feet when in conventional terms it needs 25,000 square feet. This chronic shortage of space cannot be resolved adequately without sufficient funding, but Ben Uri is unable to compete with Tate Modern and Britain for either visitors or funding. Tate annually receives £18 million pounds in grants while Ben Uri only receives a paltry £30,000. So inevitably if it is going to survive, Ben Uri needs to carve out its niche and secure its audience.

 

Half of Britain’s museums only receive a tiny number of 5,000 visitors each year. It’s not surprising therefor that so many struggle and are in constant financial crisis. I remember being shocked several years ago visiting Birmingham City art gallery for the first time because it seemed so neglected and dilapidated despite being an important museum in the country’s second largest city. Ben Uri’s solution is a commitment to a newl model in building a relationship with its audience online. It will become a digital institution supported by a restrained physical presence. Most of its activities will take place on its website rather than in the traditional manner inside a dedicated and expensive exhibition space.

 

The collection online is illustrated by short one-minute thematic films and information about 40 of their historic exhibitions from 1925. There are short introductions to individual artists in the collection like Jacob Epstein, Frank Auerbach and David Bomberg. Alternatively, you can find thematic introductions to ‘German Artists in Exile’ or ‘Self-Portraits in The Collection’.

 

The museum is also pioneering ways in which families and teachers can involve children in lessons, discussion topics and activities based around the collection. Furthermore, there is an entire section on ‘Arts and Health’ in which carers for the elderly and those with dementia can be engaged by art therapeutically. These features are very targeted to specific audiences but what these resources demonstrate is how a collection is trying to think creativley about reaching a wider audience online.Ben Uri’s 442 individual artists which can be discovered on the website. Online, you can explore important works of art by well-known artists such as Chaim Soutine to less familiar artists like Eva Frankfurther. 

There will also be a series of online lectures – check their what’s on page for details

 

While the website can presently feel a little awkward to navigate and use, the ambition of Ben Uri to be a ‘museum without walls’ is exciting and imaginative. A small and underfunded public collection is thinking ‘outside the box’ to reach a larger audience and to really consider how digital access might be exploited in order to expand its activities. Ben Uri demonstrates how a struggling but significant museum can survive and even flourish.

Van Eyck: An Optical llusion at The Art Musuem of Ghent

Van Eyck: An Optical Illusion

Free virtual tour of the exhibition at Ghent Art Museum.

Available in several languages including English. 

Adult and children’s visits to choose from.

Van Eyck Online Exhibitions Ghent

One of the exhibitions I had hoped to visit in 2020 opened early in the year at the art museum in Ghent, Belgium, taking the opportunity to show the newly restored ‘Ghent Altarpiece’ otherwise known as ‘The ‘Mystic Lamb’, completed in 1432 by Jan Van Eyck. This large multi panelled work usually hangs in the city’s St Bavo’s cathedral. The exhibition, ‘Van Eyck: An Optical Illusion’, provided a detailed and comprehensive examination of the artist’s life and work. In Britain you can see several of this Flemish master’s paintings in the National Gallery, most notably his ‘Arnolfini Portrait’ which remains one of the gallery’s most visited pictures. I write about and teach the history of modern and contemporary art, but the ‘Ghent Altarpiece’ is one of those signature paintings illustrating some of the beliefs, ideas and techniques that have shaped of western art.

This exhibition took five years to plan involving research and conservation drawing upon the knowledge of many experts. Thirteen of the artist’s rare, surviving twenty paintings were gathered together. But the temporary show which entailed so much preparation had to close months early, losing the museum millions of pounds worth of 144,000 refunded tickets. What fortunately survives is an online guide which allows you to walk through the show, room by room. The experience is multi-faceted, providing an audio narration and opportunities to see individual works more closely as if you are standing before them. You navigate from room to room by using the menu bar or jump points indicated by white circles. Despite the original physical display being taken down, virtual technology has enabled the MSK Ghent to save and share the experience of visiting such an important and rewarding exhibition,

The Ghent Altarpiece has endured and survived many threats from overpainting to the threat of Protestant iconoclasm during the Reformation. In the online presentation you’ll learn about the particular challenges of restoring this tremendous artwork and the difficult choices the conservators needed to make in the process. Above all, like the very best researched and curated exhibitions, the show informas a virtual visitor from anywhere in the world about the cultural context in which Van Eyck made his wonderful paintings. These pictures manage to incorporate realism, symbolism and illusion. Van Eyck’s art accomplishes a precision of details and a mastery of light and texture. He created his highly admired painterly effects by applying both opaque and translucent oil paint on wooden panel enriched by layered glazes. The result is an astonishing level of observation, infused with curiosity and empathy.

So to visit ‘Van Eyck: An Optical Illusion’ is to participate in a digital revolution, an encounter with art across geography and time. While nothing will ever transcend the experience of close physical proximity to an artwork, new technology permits anyone during the pandemic and in the future to access museums and temporary exhibitions around the world at any time of the day without leaving your desk or kitchen table. We can now appreciate how powerful new technologies can offer more choices and a deeper engagement, transforming our relationship with art.

 

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is one of my favourite museums and one I was fortunate to spend hours inside exploring while living in the city during the 1990s. It ranks with the Louvre, the British Museum and the Hermitage in St Petersburg for its eclectic range and encyclopaedic collections. Encompassing photography to fashion to Pacific art, almost every facet of human creativity is represented there. But unlike many major European museums it did not originate as a royal collection and nor was it established as a national collection by a government. The Met, as it is commonly known, was founded by a group of prominent New Yorkers with civic support eager to build a collection of fine and decorative arts in the United States’ largest city. Another goal in creating the museum was to introduce education about art. Subsequently the collection grew substantially assisted by significant donations from wealthy collecting families. Sometimes it can have a rather disjointed feel arising because many of the collections began life as the expressions of individual collectors rather than a more traditional, scholarly approach. But therein also lies its strength because many of these collectors had the twin advantages of deep pockets and opportunities to buy particularly in Europe at times of war and economic decline

The Met’s website provides detailed information on the museums famously elaborate exhibitions. Some of the current shows which necessarily only remain online include ‘Dutch Masterpieces at the Met’ and ‘Kyoto: Capital of Artistic Imagination’. Each exhibition is accompanied by a primer which introduces the cultural context and themes. These primers are imaginatively produced with texts and films so that the entire exhibition can be explored in a more comprehensive cultural and historical manner. This allows the viewer to dig very deep, so the Dutch Masterpieces show allows you to learn from food stylists and florists about the depiction flowers and food in the paintings. The Met claims that you will learn stories about ‘life, death and lemon peels’. Each object in the exhibition is illustrated with a short description and full cataloguing information. A further digital advantage is to be able to explore details of individual paintings which are highlighted by circles that can be activated by a mouse. While each temporary exhibition may close in a physical gallery, it can survive online in perpetuity.

Beyond the temporary exhibitions the Met also provides extensive online access to its permanent collections. From selected highlights to 375,000 high resolution images of objects in the museum’s collections, you can spend hours navigating your way around this storehouse of human achievement. Alternatively, you can learn about particular techniques such as woodcuts which artists have used cross cultures and history from Japan to Europe. If you don’t know what to look for there are even prompt buttons such as ‘I want to learn’ and ‘I want to feel inspired’ which take the visitor to curated content when you might be taken to a subject never encountered before such as artistic traditions in West Africa from the 6th Century. In the section dedicated to the recently renovated British Galleries, visitors can discover 10 galleries of objects made in Britain from 1500 to 1900 which match the V & A in London for quality and breadth. A special display within these galleries is dedicated to British teapots accompanied online by a film showing the installation of the pots in their case and an audio file describing how they embody the development of Britain’s colonial tea trade, fashion for the new custom and the role of taste in tea pot design.

Online presentations of exhibitions at the Met demonstrate the growing power of museums to present art and objects in a deeply engaging way far beyond simply standing passively presenting them on walls or cases. Many museums around the world such as the V & A or British Museum are adopting a similar approach but what makes the Met’s website so entertaining is the strength of the collections allied to a comprehensive and imaginative use of new digital possibilities.

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Covering: Hungerford, Marlborough, Wantage,   Lambourn, Newbury, Thatcham & Theale