CAN in the Time of Corona


Artist and CAN co-founder Liz Maugans, fashionably dressed

It was within days of hearing the term “social distancing” for the first time that the alt-weekly Cleveland Scene announced that it would lay off some staff and stop print production, moving to an online-only format, at least for the near term. That hits close to home, as a bunch of CAN’s writers, including myself, have worked for that paper and seen it sustain one hit after another.

Scene’s news was followed quickly by the announcement that Prizm, the magazine serving the LBGTQ population, would cease publishing altogether. And then the Cleveland Plain Dealer laid off a bunch of staff.

CAN readers and all the art organizations involved knew years ago that if this environment was going to sustain a voice for art—one they could count on to cover not just the major institutions, but the hard work of artists, galleries, and studios in the regional scene—that they would have to create it themselves. That is how CAN was born, and how it continues.

Now eight years into this project, as we confront the challenge of COVID 19, it has never been more important to continue this mission, and keep in touch.

Art making will continue, no matter what. Maintaining an art market, though, is another kind of challenge. Now that we have this weird term, “Social Distancing,” it is especially critical that we remind people artists, studios, and galleries exist. Further, we need to point out that we are responding to crisis in ways that are practical (like all those hand-sewn masks), documentary (like Keith Berr’s ominous photos of profoundly empty streets), and inspiring (like the Pretentious Cleveland Portrait Artists carrying on by video, continuing to practice life drawing, among the multitude of examples).

Emergency Room nurse Shelley Marquardt Nowak, by Douglas Max Utter

As I said in this report by David C. Barnett for WCPN, “It’s really important for us to figure out a way to demonstrate value, what is missing from people’s lives, and what is there for them when we return to some kind of normalcy.”

In the meantime we are evolving: taking classes, and sales, and even gallery talks and tours online.    We don’t know how the art industry will come out of this, but we need to take lessons from the past. As artists put their content online, they need to bear in mind what the same process did to newspaper publishing, and to music.

What the Internet did to newspapers – making content ubiquitous and free—is obvious. Musicians handled things a bit better. As they saw revenue from vinyl, cassette, and CD sales evaporate in the rush to digital streaming, they learned out of necessity to earn their money by relentless touring. It became important to be in the room with them, to hear them live. Then along came the COVID crisis, and for the time being, at least, took that possibility away.

Whether we come out of this with pent-up demand for face-to-face, real world experience, or whether we come out of it with heightened paranoia enabled by heightened comfort with Zoom chats, Patreon, and other kinds of digital delivery, artists and galleries and museums need to figure out how to maintain their real-world relevance and a way of paying for their work.

So CAN is going to keep publishing, and keep watching these dynamics, both online and in print.

In our Summer issue, CAN has asked participating organizations to tell their stories about how COVID 19 has affected them.  We’re publishing dozens of stories about how galleries, studios, and museums are responding to the crisis.

Regular readers know that this section of the magazine—which we call Members Report—is partially subsidized by the organizations themselves. Typically, galleries share in the cost of spreading news about their upcoming programs. Because we’ve asked them to report on the Big Disease, we’re not charging this time. We know they are all struggling to stay afloat, as cancelled exhibits make it difficult to sell art and cover expenses. But we know that it is better for all of us to keep in touch, to keep spreading the word.

Further, eight years of publishing have added to our understanding of what we are doing with this magazine and website. In addition to spreading the word and building dialog, we are building a historic record of art activity in this place and time. Eight years of CAN is an amazing reference material.  In our Summer 2020 issue we are documenting the impact of the historic COVID crisis on the art sector, in the voices of dozens of mostly small organizations.

It’s been three Fridays running that we have not been out in the galleries to see what artists have been doing lately. We’ve got more weeks of social distancing in front of us. But this will come to an end. We’ll come out of it changed, but we will come out of it. And thanks to the support of those dozens of organizations, and to generous philanthropic organizations, and generous readers, CAN will be there then, too.

The opinions expressed on CAN Blog are those of the individual writers. Art is somewhat subjective. Well, somewhat. But yes, everybody's a critic.

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