Museums Are Finding New Ways to Connect with Art Lovers Online during Quarantine

Justin Kamp
Apr 19, 2020 12:00PM

Animal Crossing: New Horizons, 2020. Photo by Sarah Waldorf. Courtesy of J. Paul Getty Museum.

As the art world reels from the COVID-19 epidemic, institutions everywhere are doing their best to bridge the gap of social distancing with online initiatives. While galleries and fairs push online viewing rooms and virtual reality advancements to keep collectors engaged, museums face a very different set of challenges. They are attempting to simulate not just the experience of viewing art, but also the sense of activism and belonging that museums can cultivate in their communities through innumerable activities and initiatives. Institutions all over the world are taking creative approaches to recreating the museum experience at home.

Some institutions have focused on programming exhibitions that take full advantage of the possibilities virtual space offers. Moscow’s Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, for example, launched a “self-isolation platform” that unites the museum’s various digital initiatives under one comprehensive catalog. There are guided exhibition walkthroughs, Soundcloud mixes, and passages of prose and critical theory alongside fully digitally native exhibits hosted on the museum’s Garage Digital platform. The museum is also using its TikTok page to share a continuing horror movie–style saga filmed around its empty building that uses the app’s first-person perspective for low-budget thrills.

李维伊(LI Weiyi), 此刻 (The Ongoing Moment), 2020. Courtesy of the artist and New Museum.

“WE=LINK:十个小品 Ten Easy Pieces,” 2020. Courtesy of New Museum


While Garage Museum’s self-isolation platform combines new and old projects, the New Museum, with its “First Look: New Art Online” program, is commissioning new digital works ideally suited to the age of self-isolation, in conjunction with Rhizome. The latest project, “We=Link: Ten Easy Pieces,” is a partnership with Shanghai’s Chronus Art Center, and features 10 digital works by artists from across the globe—ranging from abstract renderings like aaajiao’s WELT (2020) to pointed meditations on health and commonwealth like Tega Brain and Sam Lavigne’s Get Well Soon! (2020).

“When you are isolated to observe social-distancing mandates and many people are already telecommuting and working from home, the network becomes so visibly essential and indispensable,” said Zhang Ga, a curator at the Chronus Art Center who organized the virtual exhibition. Zhang hopes “We=Link” will prompt visitors to think critically about the structures that have allowed life—and art—to continue online. “We hope out of this ad hoc adventure we can develop a sustainable model for institutional collaboration and reinforce net art as a fundamental artistic medium central to the discourse and as a critique of our pervasively networked society.”

泰佳·布莱恩 & 山姆·拉文 (Tega Brain & Sam Lavigne), 快点好起来! (Get Well Soon!), 2020. Courtesy of the artists and New Museum.

While some museums mine the digital sphere for curatorial possibilities, others are seeking to capitalize on the internet’s social dimensions to simulate the communal functions of museums. On March 28th, MoMA PS1 hosted the “Come Together (Apart)” festival online, an expanded (if isolated) version of the music festival and record fair originally scheduled to take place at the art center that weekend. The festival brought together livestreamed DJ sets, documentary screenings, remote film talks, and virtual workshops. Even the record-fair portion of the festival found an online equivalent with a curated fair hosted on Bandcamp.

The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago has taken a similar idea and stretched it out into weekly programming as part of the museum’s “Commons Online,” a digital hub that acts as an extension of the museum’s in-person community space, the Commons. The Commons Online plays host to a variety of group workshops and events, most often taking place on Instagram Live. These have included a virtual fashion show featuring young designers, guided meditation livestreams, drag queen storytelling, and structured activities and crafting guides for families.

Participants at MCA Family Day: Junk Monster, 2020. Photo by Natasha Moustache. Courtesy of The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.

“The way culture is impacted by this moment will be borne out not just over the coming months, but over the next year,” said Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan, director of content strategy at MCA Chicago. “The work we’re doing now builds on a strong foundation the MCA had long before COVID-19. Art is a powerful tool for self-expression and self-reflection; it’s also capable of creating meaningful connections between people and communities.”

Elsewhere, institutions have embraced their roles as agents of community-focused activism, turning digital reach into a vehicle for action. Last month, New York’s Poster House museum released “Coronavirus: Chinatown Stories,” a series of video interviews with Chinatown residents and shop owners detailing the effects COVID-19 has had on their lives and livelihoods. The tender, often heart-wrenching interviews were a result of quick thinking on the museum’s part. After closing on March 10th, Poster House staff reached out to author Grace Young for help with extending programming for the museum’s exhibition “The Sleeping Giant”—which focused on the economic relationship between China and the rest of the world—to look at the economic impacts the virus was having on Chinese-Americans in New York.

Still of Grace Young from “Coronavirus: Chinatown Stories,” Episode 1, 2020. Courtesy of Poster House.

“My intention with the videos was to interview restaurant and shop owners to get a sense of how the virus was impacting their businesses,” Young said. “Unexpectedly, as it unfolded we found ourselves recording and bearing witness to one of the saddest days in Chinatown’s history.”

Julia Knight, the director of Poster House (which opened in June 2019), said the series was a natural outgrowth of the museum’s obligations to the community that supports it. “We are a brand-new museum,” Knight said. “It was strange timing to have just opened an exhibition of Chinese posters, but it meant that we had spent time collaborating with other institutions and individuals dedicated to Chinese history and culture, so we immediately turned to them to figure out if we could help or act in any way.”

Still of Mei Chau, owner of Aux Epices, from “Coronavirus: Chinatown Stories,” Episode 3, 2020. Courtesy of Poster House.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, institutions have pursued bold new curatorial initiatives, shared group experiences, and embraced community-focused activism. While these are all important facets of the museum experience, many people also miss the fundamental joy of interacting with and interpreting art. Museums across the world have launched social media campaigns that look to recreate the deeply felt connections visitors make with art—and these campaigns have often taken the form of memes.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art launched its #MetTwinning social media campaign months before quarantine set in, but the concept—which prompts people to recreate their favorite artworks through staged self-portraits—has exploded in popularity across multiple social media platforms. The Rijksmuseum and J. Paul Getty Museum launched similar campaigns over the past month. Users have recreated everything from ancient marbles to Impressionist masterpieces, which the museums often promote through their social media channels.

Sarah Waldorf, a social media lead at the J. Paul Getty Trust, said the Getty’s social media challenge was inspired by the Rijksmuseum, with the added bonus of the Getty’s vast digitized collection of artworks and images available as a starting point. “We issued the challenge and linked people to the thousands of online collection images we have for folks to download and use for free,” Waldorf said.

The goal of the Getty’s campaign, and others like it, is to make people feel not just connected, but to help them regain a sense of self. And the museum’s digital initiatives don’t stop at costuming challenges: On Thursday, it launched Art Generator, an add-on for the popular online game Animal Crossing: New Horizons that allows players to import any artwork in the Getty’s open-access library into the game.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons, 2020. Photo by Sarah Waldorf. Courtesy of J. Paul Getty Museum.

“As people are isolated, a sense of community and connection feels more sacred than ever,” Waldorf said of the photography challenge. “People at home are seeking ways to bond with their friends and family, even from a distance. I think it also speaks to the power of creativity—that in the act of dressing up, scouting your house for objects, doing your hair or makeup, you become the director of your own shoot and, in a small way, regain a sense of control over your circumstance.”

The power of museums comes from their roles as centers—for people, art, caring, and community. In a world where isolation is currently the norm, staying centered (emotionally, psychologically, and creatively) has not been easy. But as the creative teams at these institutions are showing, the work of discovery is a continuing process. Even as the pandemic continues to change day-to-day life for billions, there are exciting possibilities for connection in every corner of digital space.

Justin Kamp