2020: The Year COVID Drove Evolution

COVID drove evolution in 2020, including LAND Studio’s The City Is Our Museum campaign. Image courtesy of LAND Studio.

The novel coronavirus was not only devastating to the art world in 2020: COVID drove evolution, as well. Some strategies artists and organizations invented or embraced were not only innovative in the moment, but are likely to endure in 2021 and beyond. Here are a few innovations, adaptations, and repackaging efforts that got our attention in this terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year.

The City Became Our Museum: Public Art has been a gift during the pandemic: It exists in the infinitely ventilated, great outdoors, and the viewing is on the viewer’s own schedule. There are never crowds. Murals and sculpture around Cleveland have been in place for years, even decades, to the point of being taken for granted. However in 2020 an embrace that had been growing in recent years came to synergistic fruition with our need to connect with beauty and community, and a bunch of new works were installed.

Meanwhile LAND Studio –which coordinated the commission of a lot of those new works–launched its campaign, The City Is Our Museum, to encourage appreciation of public art in town.

Similarly, the Cleveland Foundation’s Creative Fusion program evolved into the outdoors, with exhibits including Art at a Distance, presented by MetroWest near Meyer Pool, and an ongoing project by Julia de Burgos Cultural CenterEl Museo de Mi Barrio.

Exhibits went Online: Initially it was just gallery directors walking around with cell phones, capturing short video tours of exhibits hanging in otherwise empty rooms. Then people began to create programming specifically for the medium and moment. An early and enduring highlight: quick-thinking Anna Arnold at Ursuline College’s Wasmer Gallery announced Self-Portraits: Artists Respond to COVID-19 in March, when the lockdown was just two weeks old, and took the online exhibit live April 24. In the end there were 119 works and, according to Flickr, to date, 7,890 views of the exhibit.

After 78th Street Studios eventually resumed its Third Friday openings (with paid tickets and masks required, and drastically limited attendance), Dan Bush –with tech support from Gallery+/Zackary Hoon— began live broadcasts that had the feel of a variety show, with artist interviews pre-recorded, live musical interludes, and patron-in-the-hallway interviews, all of which made for a delightful re-creation of the art walk experience. While seeing exhibits in the flesh is an irreplaceable experience, we expect online exhibits to continue to some degree, including exhibits created specifically for the platform.

Classes And Studio Sessions Went Online: The Pretentious Cleveland Portrait Artists have been meeting to draw portraits of new models every Friday night since 2005, and thanks to Tim Herron’s leadership would not let a little thing like the pandemic get in the way. Herron quickly re-tooled and set up his Tremont studio—The Manly Pad—to offer live portrait sessions online and continued the tradition. One result was that portrait artists from other cities were able to participate, and many regularly did.

Several of the region’s teaching studios also took up the charge, including Valley Art Center, BAYarts, and Zygote Press.  We know in-person classes will come roaring back when they can, but to the degree that the same can be offered online, and extend the audience worldwide, we expect some of this to continue.

Artists Went Live: Recognizing that the internet was a way to keep in touch with customers, several artists focused on Facebook Live events, some even presenting new programming at consistent times every week. Notably, Eileen Dorsey hosted her What’s On The Easel Wednesday series consistently, and every Thursday, Judy Takacs presented her Living Figuratively series, both emphasizing life — and continuing work — in the studio.

Exhibits were held over: Many of the exhibits that were hanging at the time of the shutdown –especially in the larger institutions—were simply left in place. Travelling exhibits couldn’t travel; installation crews couldn’t come in to install new work. That meant if you had been putting off your visit to the Cleveland Museum of Art to see A Graphic Revolution, or moCa to see Margaret Killgallen: That’s where the beauty is, you could have another chance. At least until the winter surge shuttered those institutions again. Even as these extensions gave us another chance to see some great shows, we’ll be happy to see a return to the normal pace of exhibits and more frequent opportunity to see new work.

Major Museums in Ohio Collaborated on Strategy: In support of the governor’s need to issue guidelines for re-opening, major museums in Ohio began a dialog coordinated by the state-wide advocacy organization Ohio Citizens for the Arts—initially so that they could inform the state’s guidelines. But in the process, they developed what would be common practices and expectations so that the rules would be consistent, whether you went to see an exhibit at the Cleveland Museum of Art, or the Toledo Museum of Art, or any other. And perhaps they opened the door for other state-wide collaboration in the future.

Collective Response by Galleries and Smaller Orgs: Smaller organizations don’t have the resources that the major institutions do, and they have varied needs of their own. So, inspired by the example set by major institutions, Cleveland area galleries, studios, and non-profit organizations (coordinated by CAN) met weekly via Zoom in Spring and Summer to discuss their own plans and capacities. This resulted not only in broad awareness of what other galleries were doing, but in a consistent set of practices and messaging (including signage) that made it easier to manage re-opening when the time came.

Extended, designated viewing hours: Since they couldn’t throw big opening night parties, and if regular hours weren’t drawing patrons, galleries needed to find other ways to draw traffic. Abattoir did it by extending opening night into opening weekend, asking people to sign up for time slots during 8-hour periods on three successive days. The result was a steady trickle of patrons—and a successful launch of a long-awaited gallery at a most difficult time. Worthington Yards responded similarly, offering extended viewing hours several times during the run of each show.

Carry-Out Benefits: Non-profit organizations almost always build their budgets with the assumption that they will throw a big fund raising party. The pandemic of course made the typical format of such events impossible. Creative people adapted, though, and by September several had in the works a new kind of benefit event—a carry-out party with a take-home package of goodies, sometimes with a live component.

BAYarts generates a significant part of its operating budget with the annual Moondance, which draws 800 to 1000 people on a Saturday night in September. This year they re-tooled with a party in a box, complete with wine, charcuterie, and a Moondance playlist of classic tunes.

SPACES created when do we whisper? WHEN DO WE SHOUT?—a 12-hour telethon type event that introduced the organization’s new director, Tizziana Baldenbro, and new board president Kristin Rogers. There were videos by Uno Lady and Mourning [A] BLKstar, and artist Jacob Koestler—and of course a take-home box of party goods.

Also in November, CAN offered patrons a benefit package containing a card game—Cleveland Artists On Deck, a city-wide, COVID-safe game focused on identifying Cleveland artists by matching their names with images of their work.

Online benefit auctions also came into their own. App-based auctions have been a thing for years, and they were already a boon to organizers, even when events were held in-person. For Waterloo Arts, which took its annual Art of the Ornament auction online, and Art House—whose auction ends at Mid-Night, New Year’s Eve—online platforms were a great solution.

We love a party, and when it’s safe to throw big parties again, we expect that they will come roaring back. But considering the ease and the potential for broader reach, we think the take-out benefit / online auction might be here to stay.

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