Why We Think About Art in a Time of Adversity

I remember this day one year ago. Fear and paranoia ruled my thoughts as I witnessed one curatorial project after another cancelled due to the lockdown. This period began for me in January, since much of my work takes place in China. By March, I knew predictions of a quick quarantine were faulty, that this would go on for a long, long time. Everyone I knew experienced cancellation blues, more worried about the impact on their career or livelihood than on deaths due to the disease. That was before 500,000 people in the United States died.

How did you cope? What were you feeling? As much as artists and writers crave alone time, many realized that too much time on their own altered their priorities and vision. Not every artist changed direction. Many continued to work as they always had, albeit with greater focus than before. Many others recognized that their priorities needed to evolve given the magnitude of the year’s events. It was not only the coronavirus crisis that moved them, but also the Black Lives Matter protests and the terror of the then upcoming presidential election. I witnessed artists becoming activists. They not only raised hundreds of thousands of dollars through benefit auctions. They also organized projects to help people directly, such as food banks, refugee centers, mask-distribution sites and wellness stations.

Emergency, 2019, by Deborah Kass
Included in the online exhibition How Can You Think Of Art At A Time Like This?

On March 17th, 2020, I and independent curator Anne Verhallen launched Art at a Time Like This as a platform for free expression for artists and curators in times of crisis. From our perch, it was weirdly thrilling to see these new developments in contemporary art. We felt profound guilt about enjoying artworks in the face of so many getting ill and dying. We also evolved from being a down and dirty web venture, responding quickly to current events. We felt an enormous responsibility in starting an art platform that responds to crises, in the US and abroad.

It was a year that not only challenged the relevancy of contemporary art but also the ethics of major arts institutions. Faced with closures, they rushed to make up programs online and recoup lost ticket sales. Today’s layoffs and deacquisitions were entirely predictable. Coinciding with the #Me Too movement and concerns about systemic racism and toxic board members, these museums are undergoing an long-overdue revision of their priorities. Grasping for relevant programming, their choice of contemporary artists to feature is also evolving.

Art at a Time Like This tried to avoid these mistakes. Chiefly, we brought in a roster of curators from around the world to steer the direction of our programming. Sharing the helm and collaborating with others helped us avoid many of the pitfalls that established museums stumbled into. We had a track record with BIPOC artists since our beginning, so we didn’t have to scramble to find a few when the George Floyd protests erupted. We were already working with artists from Asia and Africa when it became clear that a global point of view was necessary because the pandemic was global. We avoided the problems of toxic sponsorship by relying primarily on small donations from our 200,000 viewers. (Special thanks goes to the Mimi Saltzman Family Foundation.)

People keep asking us what will we do in 2021? What happens after the pandemic is over?

We have no intention in changing our mission — to be a platform for artists and curators at times of crisis. And right now, the world is in perpetual crisis in countries such as Myanmar, Russia, Hong Kong, and the Xinjiang Province in China. Artists are being censored and arrested throughout the globe, even in the US. Our efforts are needed now as ever before, especially with our mission finding that a global approach could hold us together, rather than fuel divisiveness.

It used to be that I’d look at certain works of art — Rothko’s chapel, Matisse’s dancers, Gordon Parks photographs and Meret Oppenheim’s fur teacup — as experiences reassuring me that I was not alone. Today, I have found similar transcendence in the works of Marilyn Minter, Jacolby Satterwhite, Sachiko Kazama, Sun Xun, Arahamaini, Judith Bernstein, and many, many others.  They have all pointed a way through the state of crisis in 2020. And for that, Art at a Time Like This is eternally grateful.

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