It is from a position of great privilege that I acknowledge some of my greatest losses of this time have been the inability to travel and the inability to visit art galleries and museums. I have longed for both of these experiences like missing a faraway friend, one you are not sure when you can see again.
I have always resisted the online art experience – other than for research, it seemed as if it was beside the point. You need to be in front of the piece to really appreciate it, dammit.
COVID-19 has taught me that there’s another way to look at it.
The National Gallery of Canada’s excellent series of “Virtual NGC” videos were a pandemic balm for me. Tom Thomson’s The Jack Pine, Janet Cardiff’s Forty-Part Motet, Annie Pootoogook’s Cape Dorset Freezer are explored in detail by curatorial staff.
The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, a place I haven’t visited in probably 15 years, has a “3 Minutes with an Artwork” series, which I also recommend. You can learn a lot in three minutes, as it turns out, as in a knowledgeable volunteer guide’s talk about Marc-Aurèle Fortin’s painting Storm Brewing over Hochelaga, during which she discusses its contemporary resonance in the age of COVID-19.
Google’s Arts and Culture app – which I have spent countless hours using during the shutdown – allowed me to “visit” some of my bucket-list museums that I began to worry I might never actually get to. The glory of Paris’s Musée D’Orsay – the museum itself, its magnificent collection and the way the works are installed – was evident, even on my little iPhone. (The experience is better on a larger screen, though, like your laptop.)
I was moved almost to tears by Diego Rivera’s murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) (a place I have somehow never visited, despite having grown up in not-very-far-away Toronto) and by the work Frida Kahlo produced during their time there. Then I had a good laugh at the headline of a newspaper clipping the DIA included in its online exhibition Frida Kahlo in Detroit: “Wife of the Master Mural Painter Gleefully Dabbles in Works of Art.”
The Google Art experience was particularly effective, I realized, when visiting places I have been and loved. “At” the AGO, I spent time with paintings I have seen for years at every visit, so familiar yet so far away right now – works by Emily Carr, Tom Thomson, the Group of Seven. Augustus John’s The Marchesa Casati, James Tissot’s La Demoiselle de Magasin, Paul Peel’s The Young Biologist. Seeing these works - even on my computer screen - felt like visiting home.
Visiting the Vancouver Art Gallery (which has now re-opened) online was a particularly emotional experience; the only way at the time that I could visit the place I have toured through countless times, for work and for pleasure.
Its online exhibition offering was Douglas Coupland’s 2014 show “everywhere is anywhere is anything is everything.” Looking at its intricate and whimsical Lego towers, colourful Pop Head series and his massive installation The Brain (made with thousands of found items), I felt such joy remembering what art can do, and such a loss wondering when it will ever be the same again.