The Current Situation


Art writing and visibility in a pandemic

Text by Ashley Jones

Above: Tim Best, Man Painted Toenails, 2016, Polaroid, 5 11/16 × 5 11/16 × 5/8 in. Image courtesy of Liliana Bloch Gallery.

A lot of things have changed since the earliest months of the COVID-19 lockdowns and self-imposed quarantines.

Museums are now opening with limited hours, and galleries are beginning to open to the general public with mask mandates and social distancing suggestions; even as a second round of lockdowns is increasingly present in the news. Artists, art institutions, and art-adjacent creatives are changing several aspects of creation itself as a result of social isolation and necessary distancing (even if they were working in isolation before), and those of us who write about art have to reconsider not only how we do that, but how we come to engage with art in the first place. 

Writing about these new works, what and why they are, is essential to the continued experience and discovery of new art and artists. People who have taken up that charge are still pitching editors, but also making new use of existing platforms such as Instagram, and it’s not just where we are writing, but what we are writing about that is changing. Priorities are shifting as well as methodologies. We are reviewing the past in order to document the now.

We see these priority changes made manifest in protests and direct actions of all sorts, including a focus on telling the untold; letting the public in on open secrets and day-to-day experiences of art workers of all sorts. Just one example of this began well before the pandemic took hold, but came to the fore amid the outcry over the lack of diversity and inclusion in the country’s arts institutions.

In 2019, independent curator and art historian Chaédria LaBouvier, received press everywhere from the New York Times to HypeBeast for her groundbreaking scholarship on Jean-Michel Basquiat, as well as for being the first Black woman, Black curator, and person of Cuban heritage to curate a show for the Guggenheim in its 83-year history. She then went public in November 2019, in a viral Tweet, with the news that Nancy Spector, Artistic Director and Chief Curator of the Guggenheim, was systematically separating LaBouvier from her work on Defacement. The show title was derived from one of Basquiat’s works, created in homage to Michael Stewart, an unarmed Black man beaten to death by the NYPD for the alleged crime of graffiti.

On June 3, 2020, a Twitter thread of  LaBouvier’s went into further detail on the ways in which Spector was looking to co-opt the exhibition, and provided  documentation of aggressions dating back to 2018 that range from Spector organizing a panel which would not include LaBouvier, to a refusal to allow her to use the employee bathroom, to threats not to pay the curator at all, and even attempts to limit press for the show–all in retaliation for La Bouvier’s refusal to sign over the copyright for years of independently funded scholarship. Information that went largely ignored by a pre-COVID era press, not even warranting a response from Spector or the Guggenheim.

On August 17th, 2020, in an example of using pre-existing platforms in a way that addresses new priorities, the investigative Instagram page @ABetterGuggenheim, wrote a synopsis of what happened to LaBouvier as a caption-to-audio in which Spector called the history-making curator “angry” and “irrational” in a closed curatorial meeting. This was a far cry from her tearful denials, and Guggenheim President Elizabeth Duggal’s assertion, in response to being questioned about the Guggenheim’s attempts at erasure during the very panel that LaBouvier was pushed out of, that while the museum respects and appreciates LaBouvier’s work, it “[runs] different ways than maybe you’re aware of.”

On June 22nd, amid calls for equity and restorative justice both in and out of the art world, the Guggenheim’s Curatorial Department, with the exception of Spector, called for an independent investigation and report on the “Basquiat project,” as well as allegations made by LaBouvier. @ChangetheMuseum, which champions the voices of art students, artists, and art professionals by allowing their voices to be the voice of the platform, shares stories that all too often mirror LaBouvier’s. 

Changing and addressing structural issues within galleries and museums holds a new level of import as the concept of place is being redefined as far as collectors are concerned. Another way this is playing out is through galleries, and the artists who they represent, creating new models such as appointment-only showings, virtual openings, and shifts to online spaces for art fairs. 

Cancellations of almost all major events, including huge music and art festivals like SXSW, or physical art fairs like Art Basel and Frieze, have been examined in studies such as “The Impact of COVID-19 on the Gallery Sector”, a mid-year survey from Art Basel and UBS, prepared by Arts Economics founder, Dr. Clare McAndrew. Findings of the survey reveal things you might expect: of 795 surveyed modern and contemporary art galleries from 60 different national markets, as well as high net worth collectors in the United States, United Kingdom, and China, sales were shown to have gone down 36% in the first half of 2020, while also revealing unexpected benefits tied to online sales.

Without physical place as a determining factor, galleries with under $250,000 annual turnover, excluded from the “high-end” label applied to galleries bringing in $10 million or more annually, proved to be more successful than their high-end counterparts at bringing in new buyers who have been responsible for a quarter’s worth of sales for galleries selling online in early 2020. 

As the pandemic forced galleries to shutter and dealers to seek different avenues for maintaining sales and engagement, attention has turned to more dispersed markets, as artists increasingly work in other places than New York City, the undisputed center of the global art market. According to the recently released The New York Art Market Report by Clare McAndrew and Independent Art Fair, “official statistics show 248,000 artists working in the US in 2019, and over 21,000 of those working in New York, or 9% of the national total. While this is a significant share, it has declined over time (from a 12% share in 2000), and the number of artists based in New York has grown only 6% in the ten years from 2010 to 2019 (versus 27% nationwide).” The Dallas Art Fair, which launched a digital edition of its 2020 fair like many others around the world, is just one example of an online marketplace, reflecting trends across the art market globally. 

How are new buyers engaging with art? And how are artists creating for these new experiences? Some great examples can be found by zeroing in on a place considered “de-centralized” from the art world: Dallas, TX.

Tim Best, Kodi in Dress at Motel 6, 2018, Polaroid, 5 11/16 × 5 11/16 × 5/8 inches. Courtesy of Liliana Bloch Gallery.

Lens-based artist Tim Best’s FLASH, a photo exhibition mounted at Liliana Bloch Gallery in Dallas, places a situational emphasis on documentation. Utilizing video, Best shows art in the process of becoming, a preamble to the many still images created for a show that uses a vintage Polaroid camera and phosphorescent flash to capture the timing of his sexual awakening, explore Laura Mulvey’s “male gaze,” and interrupt the classic photographer/model relationship by turning the camera on himself in order to “transform, transfix, and critique the complexities of masculinity in photography.” He explains:

“…the material in the FLASH video is supplemental. It is nothing more than a witnessing of the shoot, intended to be a documented record of what a shoot looked like before the COVID outbreak. If there are any concerns in the video between the model and photographer, they were sexually related at that time, whereas now it raises questions about their appearance in relation to public health. I think with COVID we are seeing an amplification of fear that is casting a shadow over dimensions of intimacy found in work like FLASH. The challenge for me as an artist is to take COVID’s shadow and illuminate these dimensions of intimacy to bring us together. Just as FLASH illuminated the dark subject of the photographer and model relationship.”

Experienced solely online, what may have been a supplement before is now the whole thing, a medium of exhibition, and a mode of accessibility for appreciators of Best’s art who may be hesitant to set an appointment without knowing for certain that they’ll be buying. This makes press coverage a more significant point of contact for those who may have been the casual audience as opposed to dedicated collectors.

Other artists, such as the internationally exhibited and widely published Michael Corris, whose Free Museum of Dallas, an artist-led initiative to give artists, thinkers, and art students an opportunity to develop and exhibit projects, called on artists and writers living in Europe and North America to reflect on the current situation. Defining the current situation as one comprised of lockdowns, limited travel both nationally and internationally, and nearly worldwide protests sparked by the police murder of George Floyd, Corris invited a group including writer and multimedia artist Laray Polk, transdisciplinary artist Xxavier Carter, and myself, to participate in what would become a typographic project titled As We Were Saying…. 

The chosen medium for As We Were Saying… are typographic sample formats, which are usually inoffensive and rarely personal, reading something like Lorem Ipsum as a way to serve as an example visual, but not to inspire a deeper connection to what’s been written, As We Were Saying... makes a point of starting with unambiguous and critical writing, whatever that may be for each contributor, with Corris going on to interpret the text graphically. 

Speaking of this work and how it both connects to and differs from the work and format that he has gravitated to since the 1980s, Corris says:

“The difference now is that the project is specifically collaborative… The experience of reading the works of “As We Were Saying…” must be different than simply reading a straight text. For one thing, there are the repetitions that I’ve managed to introduce for most of the selections. For another thing, there is the change in scale that the use of different sizes of type introduces. These are disruptions, but also can operate as expressive resources in their own right. “Large” is loud, perhaps. This is up to the reader to decide. And finally, there is the way that each text is concluded on the page. Most times, in mid-sentence . This, too, has rhetorical impact.”

Critique and commentary are shifting from focusing solely on the work to placing emphasis on talking about the conditions under which it is being presented, and the motives of those who are presenting it. The unprecedented changes, from COVID to social unrest, have forced us into forming a new normal in the way that we write about art and the art world. These changes affect the way that commentary and critique are written, and perhaps, lead to an embracing of the notion of critique and commentary, like the experience of showing or viewing art, as something that can and must exist independently of openings, or of any exhibition at all.

“As We Were Saying…” Ashley Jones, “Apocalyptic Events . . .” Free Museum of Dallas 2020

Ashley Jones is an arts writer based in Houston, TX.

Share your thoughts