In a time of social distancing and widespread museum closures, the Wallach Art Gallery, located at 129th Street in the heart of Columbia’s Manhattanville campus, has taken advantage of digital mediums to preserve aspects of an in-person gallery setting by embracing the challenges of creating an engaging online experience.
While visitors can no longer crowd into gallery spaces to admire art up close, art galleries are expanding their online presence to ensure that their art can reach potential patrons at home. Galleries hope this can provide them with an even more intimate viewing experience than they would have had in person. With this transition comes not only a need to reanalyze traditional curatorial practices, but also a call to rethink the way an audience might view and connect with art, both as individuals and as members of a larger community.
In an interview with Spectator, Associate Director Lewis Long described the gallery’s plan as three-fold: increase its online content to supplement its exhibitions, such as virtual catalogs; enhance the exhibition-viewing experience in the form of virtual tours; and maintain public outreach initiatives through interactive online programming aimed at connecting the public with educators, moderators, and curators.
“It really challenges us to think more deliberately and creatively about documenting the experience inside the gallery, but also in leveraging multiple channels to bring the content to life to tell the story,” Long said.
The Wallach’s well-known exhibition “Posing Modernity,” which was on display from fall 2018 through early 2019, is now available through a virtual tour on their website. Long saw the move to an online format as a unique opportunity for those who could not view the exhibition in person to take advantage of a more personalized gallery experience.
For exhibitions that were initially set to be on display this spring, the gallery took a different approach. “MODA Curates” features two exhibitions curated by selected students in Columbia’s art history and archaeology master’s program. This year, the students selected were Rotana Shaker and Hannah Morse, both second year students in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Their exhibitions entitled “A Bottomless Silence” and “Reframing the Passport Photo,” respectively, have now been mounted online as scroll-through narratives.
“For ‘Bottomless Silence,’ we will now contextualize the objects in a way that we wouldn't have been able to do necessarily in the gallery. We will now place [them] alongside reference materials that help bring to life the story and the rationale for the objects being in the exhibition,” Long said.
Despite these virtual enhancements, Shaker noted the online format’s limitations, especially the loss of the multi-sensory experience that she had intended to create in the gallery space.
“I imagined you'd notice one thing, and then maybe you'd hear the sounds from the screening room, and you'd decide to go in there, and then maybe you'd walk around and pick up different things along the way ... as opposed to this more linear format we have in the [online] gallery presentation,” Shaker said.
For Morse, who curated “Reframing the Passport Photo,” her primary goal following the move online was to “have viewers feel like they're progressing not into a space, but into a storyline in the same way a gallery experience would work.” For this particular exhibition, that storyline aims to investigate the discrepancy between personal identity and forms of official identification, such as the passport photo.
Morse sees the world we live in today as “eerily reminiscent” of the time when the passport was written into international law, exactly one hundred years ago. She was motivated to curate this exhibition, in part, by her interest in examining a system that has been in place for so long with a set of fresh eyes.
“I even see now, the passport is used to deport immigrants from America, to detain people. Especially with corona, it's been used to track travel. … We've been conditioned to think this is what identity is, but it's all based on social comforts and social normality,” Morse said.
In adapting to the online format, Morse decided to utilize a feature that allows viewers to zoom in and out on the artwork, altering the lens through which her work is viewed in a way that would not have been possible in person.
Despite the loss of the physical exhibition space, Morse and Shaker each noted benefits of the online gallery experience. For Shaker, an online exhibition brings her work closer to her faraway family.
“I have family and friends who live all over the world, and people who would not have been able to make it to the two-week run of the show can now experience it much more fully,” Shaker said.
Of course, Morse noted that there is something to be said for the experience of viewing art in-person, highlighting the fact that particular qualities like scale and texture cannot be translated into an online format.
“I think this is a step in the right direction, but I don't think it will replace physical art exhibitions in any way,” Morse said.
For the time being, though, online galleries are here to stay. The art and stories illustrated through the screen might be just what we need during a time like this.
“[What is important], I think, is not to see this as solely a loss, but as, ‘What opportunities can the internet bring us?’ Whether that be that the link is very accessible, or that people have more patience for text on their computers and phones than they have in the gallery context,” Morse said.