Dallas galleries and museums invent a brave new world of online engagement.
When the realization that the COVID-19 quarantine was putting the brakes upon this year’s long-anticipated Arts Month, local gallerists and museums were down, but not quite out.
Erin Cluley jumped into the fray first with a tongue-in-cheek online show entitled No Fair. Cluley had the idea of a virtual viewing room when the Dallas Art Fair postponed their original dates from April 16-19 to October 1-4.
“I had seen how (German gallerist) David Zwirner was curating shows and how transparent with their pricing they were, and thought it was exactly what I should start doing,” she explains. “I had been thinking of starting a program of online exhibitions and enlisting friends or people who are on the periphery of the art world to have them curate things. It’s like telemedicine—everyone’s been talking about it for a long time, and now we’re pushed to finally make it happen.”
No Fair was up and running when the Fair itself announced a special cyber edition featuring 82 of its original 94 participating galleries. On view through Thursday, April 23, the Dallas Art Fair Online also includes virtual studio visits, curators’ tours, and Zoom webinars, programming that director Kelly Cornell says came together in a whirlwind week and a half.
“I think art fairs having a more digital footprint is something we’ve always been interested in,” she says of Fair’s online pivot. “I like the anonymous aspect of being able to sit behind my computer and delve into an artist, but at the same time, I’m aware of a lack of human interaction, which is why we came up with the idea of the webinars. It’s very rare you walk into a gallery and talk to the gallerist and artist that happens at art fairs, and we wanted to bring some of the humanity back to the experience.”
From the beginning, the concept was a success, with over 8,000 hits from around the world during the site’s first few hours online. Cornell anticipates a small range of works will be available on the URL post the Fair’s closing, giving it a living presence until it can return to the Fashion Industry Gallery.
But how to bring the experience of strolling through a blockbuster exhibition to life? The Dallas Museum of Art’s solution was immersive virtual tours of the current shows speechless, Flores Mexicanas: Women in Modern Mexican Art and For a Dreamer of Houses (which opened mere days before the lockdown).
Inspired by French philosopher Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space and ironically exploring the importance of home, Houses in particular seems made for these times. The museum’s online assets of the show (including behind-the-scenes footage of Alex Da Corte’s Rubber Pencil Devil and Dallasite Francisco Moreno’s Chapel) allow the viewer to explore each artist’s intent in a more profound way. Which is something that may not have happened on a crowded Saturday afternoon in a distraction-filled gallery.
For some local institutions, a pause for breath means staff has the time to share more than just a museum’s holdings. In addition to highlighting the preservation work of their conservator Claire Taggart, the Nasher Sculpture Center has launched a series called “Shelf Life” that highlights what local notables are currently reading, listening to, and watching. Manager of communications and international programs Lucia Simek envisions it as an imaginative documentary of our times.
The museum is also currently taking footage they captured before everyone went into shutdown mode to bring their current Barry X. Ball: Remaking Sculpture show online. Although nothing can entirely replace the viewing of Ball’s Michelangelo-meets-Hellraiser aesthetic IRL, a deeper dive into the exhibit as well as anexpansion of the Nasher’s archives will give art aficionados a reason to return to the museum’s site again and again.
“(We’re putting online) all this stuff we had and never knew what do with—every talk every concert and ever article in our magazine,” says Simek. “We’re trying to start things with the hope that they become part of our institutional DNA. It’s creating really good habits for the future and a chance for us to build brand awareness for when the world is mobile again.”
Without large staff or big budgets, more indie players in the scene have taken an entrepreneurial approach in getting their work out to the public. Culture Hole curators Jeff Gibbons and Gregory Ruppe reached out to their stable of friends to create an episodic online journal. “Hosted” by the duo’s alter egos, Culture Hole TV’s first episode, Hugs, reflects the feelings all stir-crazy creatives are experiencing at the moment.
Says Ruppe, “I heard this amazing quote on Democracy Now talking about the situation. The host was saying that we need to think of this as a portal and choose to walk through it. In the art world, there are so many ways of approaching things we often find ourselves in the rigid machinery of capitalism, and this is an opportunity to think of things in a radical way of what art can be.”
Giving artists a voice during the pandemic was also on the mind of Kirk Hopper, who in conjunction with Houston-based editor and curator Susie Kalil, created a monthly digital magazine called Passage.
“I see artists as active change agents, explains Kalil. “They truly have guided us over millennia. I was looking at all these online viewing rooms and seeing how all these galleries were making a lateral shift from an actual gallery to an online presence. It made me hungry for something of substance and to hear from the artists themselves.”
The founders of both Culture Hole TV and Passage anticipate continuing these platforms once the quarantine lifts, but what the museum and gallery worlds will be like on the other side of the pandemic is anyone’s guess. In a perfect world, online programming could help drive our city’s reputation as an international art center as it gives local spaces a broader, more egalitarian viewership.
“Really testing our abilities to be nimble, creative, and solutions-driven is a major takeaway,” says the Dallas Museum of Art director of marketing and communications KC Hurst. “There are lots of exciting opportunities that technology enables, but that doesn’t mean you can or should do it all. Know your constraints and understand and stay focused on what your visitors and audiences need.”
As the way we see art changes and expands, the content of the work will be in flux as well. By the time the Art Fair reopens this fall, Cornell expects the collective global experience we’ve all gone through to inform a more thought-provoking body of work.
“I don’t think it’s going to be a pretty end—the journey is not pretty—but what I keep thinking is anything that is created in response to it is something all of us as humans are going to have that physical connection to because we’ve all been through it. This is different than political artwork because it relates to all people. This is something universal.” —Kendall Morgan