Arts & Culture, COVID-19, Op Ed, Went There


A first look at the museum experience post-quarantine


The days of carefree museum wandering are over. Obviously you can’t do any activity in 2020 without COVID-19 (and everything that comes along with it) at the back of your mind. It’s all about vigilance – remembering to put your mask back on after sneaking that snack prohibited in the galleries, avoiding rubbing your eye as museum fatigue sets in, and staying several feet away not only from the artwork but from fellow museum goers themselves. Look, but don’t touch (or sneeze or cough).


I must admit, however, that these necessary regulations do have a silver lining in terms of the museum experience. I’m glad that I no longer have to deal with the claustrophobia of someone leaning over my shoulder to read a label. I certainly won’t miss strange middle-aged men trying to converse with me about whatever painting I had the misfortune of lingering in front of. In short, things are different, and it’s important that museum goers do their best to comply and respect the new rules governing a visit.


In this age of reopening, the museum has a new responsibility beyond that of an art space, community center, or what-have-you. With the opening of the Institute of Contemporary Art on July 14th to members and July 16th to the general public, Boston’s resident contemporary art space made the conscious decision to become another gear in the public health machine. As one wise restaurant manager recently told me, “Coronavirus safety, it’s just as important to the guest experience now as good service, if not more so.” The same now applies to museums. Mask secured and sanitizer in hand, I embarked on a visit to the Seaport to explore this brave new art world.


My introduction to the reopened ICA began a few days before my visit. All tickets must now be ordered online beforehand, although it is still possible for Boston area students (whomever is left of them anyway) to order them for free with a university email. This was a fortunately stress-free step. In fact, there were still plenty of openings within fairly short notice – a plus for the visitor but perhaps not the best sign for the museum itself. When I needed to change the day of my visit, I simply called the box office and this was done without any hassle. So far, so good.


As I entered the museum, I was greeted by a hand sanitizer dispenser and a security guard pointing me to the ticket desks, where my e-ticket was scanned behind a plastic pane. Once again, easy peasy. On approaching the elevator to get to the fourth floor gallery, a sign encouraged me to take the stairs if I am able to encourage social distancing and I obliged. This was my only regret.


More out of breath than I would like to admit, I had arrived at my destination – the galleries. It was quiet – too quiet (cue suspicious glances and suspenseful music). Besides a handful of other visitors, I spent most of my time alone with the masked gallery attendants. According to WBUR, only one hundred people can be in the museum per hour. Most of the time, an empty museum is a blessing, providing enough space physically and mentally to truly enjoy the works. But in this context, it becomes almost unsettling.


This was especially present in the exhibition Tschabalala Self: Out of Body, featuring the collaged painting-portraits by this Harlem-based artist. Tschabalala Self’s canvases are larger-than-life, combining planes of soft patterned and solid fabrics and contoured by the sewn line to create a range of black figures. Although originally installed January 20th (all the exhibitions currently open were installed in January or February, in a pre-pandemic alternate universe), her work takes on unique meaning in this formerly unimaginable context. They are not Renaissance paintings best seen through quiet contemplation; contemporary art is meant to be a communal experience, and Self’s work in all their vibrancy beg to be in a busy space. The isolated figures against empty, saturated backgrounds of powder blue, deep red, and pale yellow, became yet more isolated. The intimate moments depicted would normally create a voyeuristic tension in the space, but the full effect can not be achieved when one views them virtually alone. And while similarly private yet shared experiences such as shopping in a bodega would normally be brought to life within the parallel public space of a museum gallery, the figure is oddly lonely. Coincidentally, the most representational of Self’s portraits, depicting masturbation, domestic scenes, and food shopping for example, bring to life activities that have undoubtedly taken on new meaning since quarantine began.


Installation view, Tschabalala Self: Out of Body, Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston, 2020. Photo by Charles Mayer. Courtesy of the artist. ©️ Tschabalala Self. Image courtesy of the ICA.


With this serendipity still on my mind, I made my way back down the dreaded stairwell. Before I left, I went to the lobby to make sure I checked out the Nina Chanel Abney mural – a yearlong installation encompassing the entirety of the Sandra and Gerald Fineberg Art Wall. Abney, an African American artist, has plastered this massive space with checkerboard beneath black figures and saturated shapes. This untitled work, considering inequality as a literal playing field, feels like an appropriate final thought to such a timely museum experience. Despite its January installation, before the Black Lives Matter protests that defined this summer, the mural speaks to these same issues of racial inequity. As much of my visit had been spent considering our current public health crisis in a very privileged setting and context, this mural returned me to another reality, yet deeply intertwined with COVID and its consequences.


Nina Chanel Abney, installation view, the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston, 2019. Courtesy of Nina Chanel Abney Studio. Photo by Charles Mayer Photography. ©️ Nina Chanel Abney. Image courtesy of the ICA.


Ultimately my trip to the ICA was worthwhile. Some familiar moments were even enhanced, such as walking through the John Hancock Founders Gallery and looking out on the harbor without anyone around to upset the peace. Although many aspects were closed (such as the Mediatheque, performances, and perhaps, most notably, Yayoi Kusama’s LOVE IS CALLING), there was still plenty of artwork to enjoy. My visit felt safe, socially distanced, and everyone had masks on 100% of the time. (Disclaimer: I am not a health professional.) If you feel comfortable and healthy, and would like to support the arts when they are very much in-need, visiting the ICA is a good way to spend a day outside of Zoom and your pajamas.


To visit the Institute of Contemporary Art (25 Harbor Shore Drive, Boston, MA 02210) you can buy a ticket here, or reserve your free ticket here if you are a university member. 

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