The shutdowns caused by the coronavirus pandemic have had an enormous impact on every facet of our lives, including our ability to enjoy cultural activities. Our local cultural outlets, such as symphonies and ballet and theater companies, have stopped performing and closed their doors. Visual arts venues have found that they must also close and, like their performing arts counterparts, find new and innovative ways to remain relevant. With this in mind, we thought it an opportune moment to check in with a number of museums and galleries located on the Peninsula and in the South Bay to see how they have coped over the last three months and what they hope to do in the future.
Both the Cantor Center for the Arts and the Anderson Collection at Stanford have the distinct advantage of being part of a major university with a substantial endowment. Neither museum charges an admission fee and therefore is not affected by the loss of such revenue.
The de Saisset Museum is in a similar position but, according to Director Rebecca Schapp, SCU has imposed a 25% budget reduction on all University departments. Due to a hiring freeze her position, which will become vacant upon her retirement this August, will not be filled until a later date.
"Doing our part to protect our visitors meant temporarily closing Stanford’s art museums and cancelling over 300 events," said Anderson Collection Director Jason Linetzky.
That included public tours, class visits, school visits and exhibition-related events. Major exhibitions at the Cantor such as "Paper Chase: Ten Years of Collecting Prints, Drawings and Photographs" were placed on hold (possibly to be installed again in 2021). The Anderson Collection, which focuses mainly on the permanent collection gift from the Anderson family, was set to open a special temporary exhibition, Formed & Fired: Contemporary American Ceramics (extended to hopefully premier in the Fall).
Without visitors coming into the museums, all three institutions have had to direct their efforts towards virtual programming. Here is a brief synopsis of what they have been doing:
The de Saisset: "We have conducted Zoom meetings, Zoom Game Nights and Happy Hour and continued to provide information via social media channels (Facebook, Instagram and Twitter). Museum from Home communication blasts share electronic resources, take a deep dive into various aspects of our permanent collection or offer up fun artistic activities to engage in."
According to Schapp, "We have received good responses from our social media channels."
The Cantor and Anderson Collection: "In late March we launched 'Museums From Home,' an online portal with digital collections, virtual exhibitions, recorded lectures, oral histories, art making activities and other tools like virtual Zoom backgrounds and jigsaw puzzles." The museum says that the site received about 30,000 visits in the first month. A corresponding site, "Learning from Home," offers research, teaching and learning resources specifically for the academic community. Over the summer, there is a plan to offer virtual 360 -degree tours of the galleries.
"Artists play a special role in leading us to new ways of thinking, and their work is an important part of helping us process these challenging times," noted Susan Dackerman, the John and Jill Freidenrich Director at Cantor. She also points out that natural disasters are not a new phenomenon for the University.
"The is not the first time a Stanford museum has closed in response to disaster; we can look to past resiliency to know it is possible to come back stronger and to offer hope that our cultural institutions will emerge more adaptive to meet the diverse needs and interests of 21st century audiences."
None of the three museums has a definite date for reopening, although the de Saisset has a contingency plan to open in the Fall in order to celebrate its 65th anniversary.
While the forecast for museums is not rosy (a May 28 UNESCO report estimated that the pandemic may lead to the closure of one out of eight museums worldwide), the situation for art galleries is even more precarious. A recent report from the Art Dealers Association of America stated that art galleries across the U.S. project an overall gross revenue loss of 73% in the second quarter of 2020. In addition, while a majority of full-time gallery staff have retained positions, 74% of contractors regularly engaged by galleries are no longer employed.
Pace Gallery had just concluded an enormously successful exhibition of museum-quality works by Pablo Picasso when the quarantine began. They were about to install a solo show of work by light artist Leo Villareal, which they still hope to display in August. Elizabeth Sullivan, President of Pace Palo Alto, explained, "We have been focusing on our online exhibition platform. We are currently exhibiting our second series of online shows featuring solo exhibitions by contemporary artists."
Pamela Walsh Gallery was looking forward to hosting an exhibition honoring Nathan Oliveira, a highly regarded Bay Area artist and former Stanford professor. In addition to the show, Walsh had arranged for a lecture about Oliveira to be given by Dr. Robert Flynn Johnson, former director of the Achenbach Foundation. "The postponement of these events affects the unique, in-person viewing experience we foster within our curated gallery space," she explained. Walsh has also gone digital, with a virtual gallery of works by artist Salvador Dali.
Walsh does not feel that it will be difficult to adhere to new safety and health rules, once she is allowed to reopen. “An art gallery is a fairly low-risk place of business; people can enter wearing masks and can enjoy the art without touching anything.” The gallery will be cleaned daily, she said, and there is plenty of space to maintain the six-foot distance.
Katharina Powers, owner of Art Ventures Gallery, attempted to open her Menlo Park space in early May but was closed after a police warning. She had to cancel an exhibition by artist in residence Uta Reinhard as well as a group show of fine art photographers whose subject was the Olympic Games. Unlike the other art administrators mentioned here, Powers has not embraced going virtual. "Fine art needs to be seen in person, as a person needs to find a relation to a piece of fine art — you can’t achieve it online. Online viewing is boring, uninspiring, disappointing. It works for commercial art and for investing in blue chip art."
Representatives from The Palo Alto Art Center and the Pacific Art League reported that they were profoundly impacted by the mid-March shut down, largely because they are oriented towards both the viewing and making of art.
"The shelter-in-place order was issued right before the start of our Spring quarter classes — our most active quarter, in terms of enrollment," said Aly Gould, Marketing Director for the Pacific Art League. "The result was the cancellation of 60 Spring quarter classes, which has had a significant impact on our 40-plus teachers and staff."
She explained that the staff quickly resorted to online teaching and succeeded in offering over 80 different online classes for all levels, ages and media. Looking ahead, over 70 online adult classes and 40 camps have been planned for the summer. When the building is open again, artwork from "Wish You Were Here: The Postcard Show" (currently available for view on the PAL website) will be installed in the galleries.
"We are very optimistic about Pacific Art League’s role as an art school in the post-pandemic world, and we feel that our mission to bring art to all is more important now than ever," Gould said.
For The Palo Alto Art Center, the closure meant the cancelling of exhibitions, special events and workshops as well as budget reductions. Director Karen Kienzle explained, "We immediately got to work on virtual programming, creating a suite of classes and on demand art activities for all ages, including virtual 'happy hour' events to foster virtual community." She also said that the Art Center Foundation has created a series of virtual lectures and events for members and donors, with the response being "enthusiastic and positive." When the Center opens again it will feature "Rooted," a mixed- media exhibition focusing on the importance of trees in the community.
Kienzle said that virtual programs will continue, even after the Center opens. “We are excited about some innovative programs being developed by staff — including virtual ceramic classes that include potter’s wheel rentals."
Despite their concerted efforts at online programming, everyone associated with these institutions longs for the day when the doors open, visitors can wander through galleries and programs can be planned and implemented. “We dearly miss spending time with our inspiring collections and providing shared spaces for our communities to gather at the Cantor and Anderson Collection at Stanford University,” said Linetzky. "Art plays an essential role in shaping how we understand our world, and we are eager to welcome everyone back soon."
With the future uncertain, these art administrators are being cautiously optimistic. "I see an altered future for our galleries and museums," said Sullivan. "Until there is a vaccine, fewer people will be able to simultaneously view an exhibition."
There is no doubt, however, that all concerned view the arts as an integral human experience. Pamela Walsh summed it up this way: "There is no replacement for the emotional impact of viewing art in person. The pandemic has made it abundantly clear that in-person experiences make the journey rich; we will savor these moments in a whole new way on the other side."
View online programs offered by these museums and galleries:
This article was originally published on TheSixFifty.com, a sister publication of Palo Alto Online, covering what to eat, see and do in Silicon Valley.