How to enjoy art during the pandemic

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It wasn’t just restaurants and bars that were affected by the pandemic; art galleries, cinemas and fairs also took a hit. Numerous challenges — especially financial losses, staffing shortages and operating expenses — have caused multiple art-related organizations to shut down temporarily or permanently. 

But as with so many other businesses in the COVID-19 era, art has found a way to move online. Old and new galleries have adopted online viewing, sales transitioned to e-commerce and streaming services saw a surge in demand. Since March, demand for virtual art galleries has boomed.

In light of these changes, it is worth examining how artists and art organizations have worked around the pandemic to deliver new options for art enjoyment, and why it might be worth pursuing during a pandemic in the first place.

Eben Haines and Delaney Dameron kickstarted the Shelter in Place Gallery, which features small-scale works that appear larger when photographed. The Wisconsin Film Festival also transitioned online through virtual movie screenings. Other solutions include Drive-By-Art — an outdoor exhibition that viewers can observe in a socially distant manner from their cars — and even art museums on Animal Crossing.

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These new models have also made their way into the Tufts community. Through Tufts’ COVID Response Program, Ned Carlson, a third-year combined degree student, founded Boxed Art Gallery, a medium for the students, faculty, staff and alumni of Tufts to share their artwork remotely, since many in-person opportunities have closed with the pandemic. 

Featuring an open gallery, Boxed has also organized a contest for students to publicize their art and is preparing to expand this platform to Tufts’ host communities this winter. 

“It’s a project that’s currently ongoing and the goal is to bring people closer together,” Carlson said. 

He also plans to create an option for artists to sell their work on Boxed’s website, allowing them to support themselves during the pandemic and beyond.

In addition to creating an avenue for people to express themselves, initiatives like Boxed have the potential to make art enjoyment a possibility for those who wouldn’t have been able to engage with it outside of the internet. 

“[Boxed] takes away from the materiality that is often a barrier of entry,” Carlson said. 

It can be accessed for free from virtually any device with internet connection. Moreover, while art can be found on other websites, such as Instagram or Pinterest, platforms like Boxed deliver a curated experience. This works both to offer an environment similar to that of in-person art appreciation outlets and to make this curated experience available to people who might not otherwise have been able to afford it.

Furthermore, digitally based media for art enjoyment can serve as a tool for community engagement, on which Carlson also commented.

“It’s really interesting to see how artists are involving communities … to make them more involved and make them more conscious of the socioeconomic and cultural lens that they sit in,” Carlson said.

Such a process is facilitated by online art galleries and social media mobilization. 

“But obviously there are places that are only accessible by actually going there, and those are the places that need that kind of face to face the most. So I think it’s a combination,” Carlson said.

Beyond enabling community engagement, art enjoyment can fulfill one’s needs — including biological ones — that go neglected during strenuous times like the pandemic. In a recent New York Times op-ed, Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett argues that our brains function like bank accounts. Every action draws from our bodies’ resources — energy, motivation and attention, to name a few. On the other hand, there are actions, such as eating and sleeping, which work as deposits. Given that our resources are limited, our brains work to budget them, as part of a process known as allostasis.

Barrett encourages us to look at the fatigue and lack of motivation that often come with being stuck at home not as isolated or purely mental problems, but as issues related to body budgeting that could be solved through more deposits. “When an unpleasant thought pops into your head, like ‘I can’t take this craziness anymore,’ ask yourself body-budgeting questions. ‘Did I get enough sleep last night? Am I dehydrated? Should I take a walk? Call a friend? Because I could use a deposit or two in my body budget,’” Barrett said. From this perspective, art enjoyment could function as one of many deposits that can help us live more pleasant lives. 

Carlson echoed Barrett’s statement.  

“Art really is a good way for people to … ground themselves during this pandemic,” Carlson said.

The isolation imposed by COVID-19 prevention guidelines can be mitigated by the sense of connectedness to other people or to a particular cause that comes with appreciating art. A potentially telling sign of this accented need for art-based connectedness during the pandemic is Netflix’s Teleparty feature (formerly known as “Netflix party”), which was launched during the pandemic and enables users to watch content together remotely. 

Art can also be more than an escape from troubling times. 

“[It’s] a good … self-reflective and societal mirror for us to see … what’s going on [and] what’s important to people at this point in time because … those things have shifted radically,” Carlson said.

In other words, art enjoyment might be a way to remain connected to others and to make up for the traditional social interaction that has been lost.

As 2020 comes to an end and the pandemic remains unresolved, more artists and art venues will have to turn to or continue adopting digital appreciation models. As Carlson suggests, these might take many different forms. There may be works that are developed collectively, alongside entire communities, and works that are distributed globally thanks to the internet. Regardless of what art appreciation might look like in the near future, what’s most important is that we continue exercising it — and if you’d like a place to start, the Artists’ Theater of Boston launched its virtual gallery “The Masculinity Project” yesterday.

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