By Iyala Alai
In an ordinary semester, a visitor to the Yale University Art Gallery (YUAG) can expect a warm and lively welcome. Students armed with cameras and notebooks eagerly examine each artifact, and guides wait to lead excited viewers through the exhibit halls. The gallery attracts close to 250,000 Yale students, New Haven residents, and tourists per year to view its sprawling halls and unique artifacts; class groups ranging from high school tours to graduate school seminars investigate the exhibits, all supported by a full team of 150 YUAG staff members. But the realities of this semester were quite different. As the Covid-19 pandemic took hold of the country in March, Yale students scrambled to pack up and move home, and the gallery closed its doors for a six-month hiatus.
When they re-opened in September, the bustling atmosphere of the space was transformed by social distancing guidelines and strict reservation rules. But with these changes also came an arsenal of virtual experiences that allow the local community to benefit from the gallery without compromising anyone’s safety. A similar story has played out in galleries and museums across the country and the world. UNESCO estimates that over the course of the pandemic, 90% of museums worldwide closed at least temporarily, with 13% at serious risk of permanent closure due to sharp drops in their revenue. Despite this, the pandemic has also spurred curated spaces to embrace digital technologies in new ways, allowing patrons to explore history, art, and music through virtual tours, online talks, and interactive presentations. Today, museum patrons, artists, and curators alike are wondering what these adaptations may mean for the future of the arts.
The Covid-19 pandemic has forced communities around the country to move their daily lives online: we try to build and maintain relationships without ever meeting face-to-face; we attend meetings with co-workers thousands of miles away; and we somehow still manage to be late to the classes we attend from the comfort of our bedrooms. Undoubtedly, the increase in time spent at home—up to 19.29% at the height of the pandemic—has led to severe loneliness and related mental health problems across all demographics. According to a leading health policy journal, the Health Affairs Journal, Americans reported an average increase in loneliness of between 20-30% after only the first month of nationwide lockdown. These feelings of loneliness have also led to an increase in the prevalence of depression, anxiety, and emotional distress. In the Yale community, students were welcomed back to New Haven in late August after months of working from home. The necessary restrictions on social interaction and changes to college life resulted in feelings of loneliness. Based on a September article in the Yale Daily News, this sentiment was particularly prevalent among first-years.
In this time of isolation, cultural enrichment activities like virtual museum-going have even more potential to help us connect with culture and one another. As Stephanie Wiles, Director of the Yale University Art Gallery, notes, “What we [at the Gallery] were seeing was really a great hunger on people’s part to stay connected. … We are one part of this massive ecosystem across the world trying to help people connect, in our case, with art, at this very difficult time.” The YUAG held a book launch by James Prosek in June as its first piece of virtual programming, and since then has managed to convert many important aspects of its day-to-day operations into online experiences. For example, all YUAG-based class sessions had to be uniquely adapted to fulfill the needs of each course. Yale Professor Edward Cooke has taught Introduction to Art History: Global Decorative Arts for over five years; the course typically meets in a YUAG object study classroom, allowing students to personally handle the pieces discussed in lectures. Last semester, the Yale University Art Gallery supported Professor Cooke and his teaching assistants in putting together a series of videos showing in-depth handling of each object by Professor Cooke himself. In addition, he says, “the Poorvu Center was a great source of support. They put together a team of video technicians, writing center members, and staff members from accessibility services, with whom I brainstormed ways to adapt the writing assignments and object study portion of the course.”
Some courses, however, were not as easily adaptable to the circumstances of this year. Professor David Skelly, Director of the Peabody Museum, describes the importance of in-person museum tours to his first-year seminar, Collections of the Peabody: “The Collections course is aimed specifically at what we can learn from physical objects and specimens. Our current world has brought into sharp relief how important it is to give students the opportunity to learn in person. My course is really impossible to teach without that connection.” As a result, he is not teaching the course this school year.
Fortunately, The Peabody itself faced a nearly seamless transition to virtual programming. The museum had been planning renovations for 2020 long before Covid-19 hit. “In some sense, we were a bit pre-adapted for the environment created by COVID. We already knew we were going to be closing our galleries in 2020,” says Professor Skelly. “It happened earlier than we thought it would—March instead of July. That was disruptive for sure. But we had already planned to shift almost everything online, including summer camps.”
Another Yale-based group, The Black Arts Neo Collective, found success in virtual spaces as well. The Collective is a student-led forum for black creatives to collaborate and share their work, founded by Nyeda Regina Stewart (‘22) and led in collaboration with Rhea Sakinah (‘24), Sonnet Carter (‘23), and Tobi Makinde (‘23). Stewart recognizes that the pandemic brought more opportunities to her incipient group, saying “The Collective was just getting its start before the pandemic and because of people’s academic commitments, engagement was low. But once things switched to virtual and people’s commitments cut back, engagement increased.” She adds, “People from the Yale and New Haven communities showed up to our meetings this past summer and fall and we were able to broaden our reach because of that.” The Collective has held many successful virtual meetings since the summer, which usually take the form of free-flowing creative workshops. They are also planning an online exhibition for the future.
Although museums and classes have made every effort to achieve a sense of normalcy through virtual alternatives to regular programming, there are some things about the experience of viewing and handling art in real life that cannot be replaced. Gulminay Lone (‘22) was in isolation in her hometown for much of the spring and summer and although an avid fan of gallery tours, she did not seek out any virtual arts activities. She explains, “Usually I’d visit a museum or gallery when visiting a new location or spending a day with others. For me, visiting these spaces goes hand in hand with exploring a new place.” Despite providing access to culture from the comfort of your home, virtual museum tours are an isolated experience—patrons do not have the chance to experience them as part of a wider exploration of the culture and history of a destination. Maya Boateng (‘22) echoes Lone’s sentiments. She was a student in Professor Cooke’s Global Decorative Arts course in the Fall 2020 semester and notes that while the virtual course was the best response to a difficult situation, she hopes that future iterations of the class can return to in-person learning. “I think [virtual tours] might be more popular or used by people who were previously unaware [of certain museums] …. but it will never be a full replacement to seeing art or exhibitions in person because there is a value to that experience that you cannot get virtually.”
The future of virtual museum experiences is as uncertain as the future of the Covid-19 pandemic itself. As nations gear up to disperse vaccines around the world, many recognize that the circumstances of 2021 could make it a very different year than the past one has been. Regardless, the pandemic may have brought about an irrevocable shift in the ways artists and art spaces use technology to interact with their audiences. According to YUAG Director Dr. Wiles, “It was a real wake-up call for us to say, we need to think about our digital strategy, not only for the pandemic but also going forward.”
The pandemic also coincided with the societal shift that came with the Black Lives Matter protests this summer, and the Black Arts Neo Collective is excited for what these changes mean for the Black artistic community. “I’m looking forward to the renaissance of works that Black artists are producing right now. This virtual world is giving us a new language to express ourselves. And I think it will rock the art world as we know it,” says Stewart, the founder of the Black Arts Neo Collective. Yale galleries also plan to offer different types of experiences post-Covid-19. Professor Skelly of the Peabody notes, “We have learned so much this year, I can’t imagine that we will go back to a world where we fail to provide online access to talks, for example… Like so many institutions, I think we will be continuing to consider what we can do to maximize [the] accessibility of our programs and other resources.” Similarly, Dr. Wiles says, “The one thing we’ve all seen is that we were able to provide access to the gallery to people who might never get to come. We’ve always known that…, but we’ve always been so focused on the in-person experience. … We want to try to keep up our support of audiences who aren’t able to make it to the Gallery.” The YUAG finished drafting a 5-year strategic plan this fall, in which digital strategy plays a very significant role. The pandemic has forced curated spaces to fully embrace the digital age. But with the understanding that in-person experiences are essential to the enjoyment and appreciation of art, museum-goers can remain confident in the fact that packed museum halls and busy tours will be a feature in our lives once more.
Iyala Alai is a junior in Branford College. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.