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Months After Being Closed, Three Museums Reconsider Their Photography Exhibitions

In the wake of the pandemic and worldwide protests, exhibitions that address climate change, civil rights, and Black photographers take on new resonance.

By Eli Cohen

Marion Palfi, Chicago School Boycott, 1963–64
© Center for Creative Photography, Arizona Board of Regents

At the Armory Show in early March, the mood among visitors and exhibitors was ominous. At New York’s Piers 90 and 94, ordinarily packed with visitors, the scene this year was much quieter. Due to rising concern over COVID-19, exhibitors exchanged elbow bumps instead of handshakes, although few wore any sort of mask. Outside, a cruise liner blocked the horizon. It was unclear whether the ship was empty or locked down in quarantine, as was a similar ship off the coast of California. One exhibitor, looking at the ship, mused that they would rather be on board than at the empty art fair.

Within a week, the city’s major museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art, announced temporary closures due to the pandemic—at first, only until the end of the month. Exhibitions that had opened were put on hold, and upcoming exhibitions were pushed back.

Months later, many of these shows are still in limbo.

With museums around the country facing decisions about reopening, where does this leave the near future of exhibitions, many the result of years of research and planning? I recently checked in with a few curators, in the US and abroad, to discuss how museums have evolved during this unpredictable moment.

Thomas Albdorf, Typical Alpine Flora at the Hochschwab Area, 2014

Thomas Albdorf, Typical Alpine Flora at the Hochschwab Area, 2014
© the artist

On Earth and Vivian Maier

On March 14, when institutional closures reached Foam, the photography museum and magazine in Amsterdam, curators were forced into action. Of immediate concern was the exhibition On Earth—Imaging, Technology, and the Natural World, which contends with the twenty-first-century relationship between image-making practices and the environment, and features photographers including Drew Nikonowicz and Adam Jeppesen. On Earth was scheduled to open just five days after the museum shut down, and the team at Foam quickly pivoted to digital programming. Curators Hinde Haest and Marcel Feil organized a live video tour of the exhibition on Instagram. “We are informed by means of images,” says Feil in the video. “Photographs, videos, all kinds of imagery made by all kinds of technological tools.” Viewing this video on Instagram, one click away from the global imagery of the coronavirus pandemic as it circulates on magazine covers and digital platforms, the curatorial statement behind On Earth strikes a prescient note.

Vivian Maier, Location unknown, 1956

Vivian Maier, Location unknown, 1956
© Estate of Vivian Maier and courtesy Maloof Collection and Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York

In accordance with guidelines in Amsterdam, Foam reopened its doors on June 1. While the curatorial staff remains working from home, curators say that the presence of visitors creates a hopeful atmosphere and a vision of life beyond the pandemic. Alongside On Earth, the exhibition Vivian Maier—Works in Color also opened, a month and a half after its scheduled launch. Claartje van Dijk, Foam’s head of exhibitions and curator of Vivian Maier, is hopeful that the exhibition will comfort people returning to public life. Unknown until after her death, Maier mostly photographed street scenes in black and white, and the Foam exhibition showcases the success of her less-published color photographs. “In her color photography,” notes van Dijk, Maier “focuses more on composition and texture, rather than on activities.” The attention to detail in the bright images seems to resonate with visitors who have been stuck at home during the lockdown. “I think it’s almost refreshing,” says van Dijk.

Marion Palfi, Wife of a Lynch Victim, Irwinton, Georgia, 1949

Marion Palfi, Wife of a Lynch Victim, Irwinton, Georgia, 1949
© Center for Creative Photography, Arizona Board of Regents

Freedom Must Be Lived

Elsewhere, reopening remains a distant goal, and museums are attempting to keep work on track. Audrey Sands, the Norton Family Assistant Curator of Photography at the Center for Creative Photography (CCP) at the University of Arizona and the Phoenix Art Museum, was in Houston at the Fotofest Biennial 2020 when things began to close in Arizona, and she was unable to return to the university before the shutdown. For her upcoming exhibition Freedom Must Be Lived: Marion Palfi’s America, 1940–1978, Sands requires access to CCP’s extensive Palfi archive, both for research related to the exhibition and to coordinate with museum conservators and preparators regarding the conditions of the photographs. With the archive closed, research has halted. Of the last set of photographs she has left to examine—about fifteen percent of the Palfi archive—“none of that material has been digitized,” Sands says. “That has been really hard, just being frozen.”

By the time Freedom Must Be Lived opens, most likely not until the spring of 2021, the curatorial vision of the exhibition will have shifted. The last month of protests across America following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis has disrupted how art institutions approach their collections, and the resonance of Palfi’s Civil Rights–era photographs invites new conversations about the work. Yet while the series presented in Freedom Must Be Lived—which also includes photographs of the forced relocation of Native Americans and depictions of aging communities in New York—are especially relevant given the demographics hit hardest by COVID-19, Sands hopes not to “flatten” the protests today with historical moments of the past. “There is so much resonance to be found in so much of our visual culture from the Civil Rights era,” says Sands, “and yet I think it’s really important to look at the 1960s in their historical specificity.”

Herbert Randall, Untitled, Bed-Stuy, New York, ca. 1960s

Herbert Randall, Untitled, Bed-Stuy, New York, ca. 1960s
© the artist

Working Together

Questioning how to respond to layers of history within the pandemic is not unique to the Arizona museums. Curators at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA), in Richmond, are dealing with narratives both in the museum and in the local community, where just down the street stand the headquarters of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. On Richmond’s streets, recent protests enact a nationwide reckoning with the history of Confederate monuments. A recent Los Angeles Times article notes that as protestors focus on removing statues of Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and J. E. B. Stuart, they protect VMFA and its monumental Kehinde Wiley sculpture, Rumors of War (2019), installed outside the museum last December.

Inside VMFA, Working Together: Louis Draper and the Kamoinge Workshop—an exhibition of the early circulation of images by Black photographers in New York who banded together under the umbrella of the Kamoinge Workshop—opened at the beginning of February. Featuring iconic names including Roy DeCarava, Ming Smith, and Louis Draper (a Richmond local whose archive is in VMFA’s collection), the Kamoinge Workshop shows the potential for artists responding to a historical moment within their communities. “A lot of the photographs that the Kamoinge members made about the Civil Rights Movement were less about documenting the movement itself,” says the show’s curator, Sarah Eckhardt. Instead, the images “were photographic statements they were making about liberty.”

Anthony Barboza, Pensacola, Florida, 1966

Anthony Barboza, Pensacola, Florida, 1966
© the artist

VMFA plans to reopen July 4 to limited visitors, but Working Together faces uncertain conditions. The show was meant to travel to New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art later this summer; for now, the exhibition will stay in Richmond through mid-October. A symposium of Kamoinge photographers, curators, and scholars had been scheduled to convene at VMFA in late March, just after the museum closed—the program, Eckhardt hopes, will become a digital event if the museum’s in-person gatherings are restricted for much longer. After the first few weeks of the shutdown, the curators at VMFA created an online exhibition of Working Together, and the successes of digital accessibility have prompted discussions about how to utilize wide-reaching platforms online, even as museums prepare to reopen. “When you can only be digital,” Eckhardt says, “then it’s a moment to reassess and to think about how you can do both in the future.”

Although museums have responded to unique challenges during their closures, common questions have developed over the past few months. How will museums emerge from this moment? Beyond economic shortfalls—budget cuts, layoffs, and decreased acquisition funds are just a fragment of the issues facing art institutions—the roles of public space and visual culture are now in periods of critical reevaluation. “Why is our greatest representation of the Civil Rights struggle in our archive from the perspective of a white European woman?” asks Sands of the Marion Palfi archive at CCP. “Hopefully, we can use this show as a chance to be self-critical, to ask those questions not just broadly, nationally, art historically, but asking them of our own institution. Why don’t we have photographs by Black photographers from the 1960s? Why don’t we have those archives? And how can we do better?”

“It’s a question that we all ask ourselves,” van Dijk told me. “For all institutions, for society, will it ever really go back to ‘normal’?”

Eli Cohen is the work scholar for Aperture magazine.

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