2020 has brought new meaning to the word “turbulent.”
This year, Hyperallergic’s staff writers, editors, and contributors have worked around the clock to report on the ever-shifting cultural landscape, which has taken more blows in 2020 than ever before in order to stay afloat during the COVID-19 pandemic. The coronavirus crisis has seeped into every facet of our society, leaving the general public particularly vulnerable in terms of public health, economics, and more; COVID-19 has proven to be a disability, race, and class issue, and the art world has served as a microcosm of all this.
During the pandemic, Hyperallergic’s newsroom went from operating out of our Williamsburg office, to working out of cities around the world. Amid the anxiety and unknown of the first weeks of the pandemic in the US (which, let’s be real, never went away and just shifted into new forms), I packed my suitcase and relocated to the west coast to be closer to my high-risk family. The move brought needed comfort and alleviated some panic about my family now that I could hold them close, but brought about new challenges for the news team’s operations. Nonetheless, we made it work despite our different time zones to bring you all incredible amounts of content, which sometimes felt impossible, but oh so worth it.
The virus was declared a global emergency by the World Health Organization on January 31, with 10,000 cases in China, and 98 known cases in other countries. In the weeks following, art fairs across China were canceled, including Art Basel Hong Kong and the CAFA Museum’s Techne Triennial. As the virus traveled around the world, major art events such as the Venice Biennale and Whitney Biennial were also postponed.
In New York, the Metropolitan Museum of Art closed on March 13, almost immediately, the rest of New York City’s museums followed, as did those across the country. Most museums stayed shuttered through the spring into the late summer, when they finally reopened with social distancing measures. (Meanwhile, in places like Los Angeles, museums have remained shuttered throughout the pandemic.) But these museums may never be the same.
A spate of devastating layoffs at museums across the country, primarily affecting frontline workers and educators, highlighted the inequality that persists at these institutions, public and private alike. Collectively, the Whitney Museum, Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, Guggenheim Museum, Philadelphia Museum, and the Met laid off and furloughed hundreds of workers during the pandemic. Notably, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City terminated all of its freelance museum educator contracts in April. MoMA’s message to educators concluded with a dismal note about their future, saying: “It will be months, if not years, before we anticipate returning to budget and operations levels to require educator services.”
Over half of museums in the United States laid off or furloughed workers during the pandemic, according to a study by the American Alliance of Museums which surveyed museum directors across the country. Of these affected workers, 68% were frontline; 40% worked in education; 29% worked in security and maintenance; and 26% were collections staff. Of the respondents, 12% said their museum was at “significant risk” of closing permanently by the fall of 2021, and another 17% “didn’t know” their future. Internationally, nearly 90% of the world’s 95,000 temporarily shuttered during the pandemic, and 13% may close permanently, according to two studies by UNESCO and the International Council of Museums.
The $2 trillion stimulus bill brought hope to many cultural workers in the US, but ultimately fell far short of the sector’s hopes for the aid package. While museum directors and other cultural leaders had been advocating for $4 billion to keep museums afloat, its relief for the arts was minimal: $75 million for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, respectively; $50 million for the Institute of Museum and Library Services; and $25 million for the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington DC. However, another $377 billion was advocated for small businesses with fewer than 500 employees, for which some arts businesses and nonprofits were eligible. Museums, galleries, and other organizations received a collective $10 million as part of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).
Individuals and businesses began advocating for a #CancelRent movement that never came to fruition, leaving renters vulnerable during times of skyrocketing unemployment. According to a survey by Artist Relief in partnership with Americans for the Arts, by April, 95% of artists had lost income due to the pandemic. Nearly every field was impacted by the shutdowns, and most have yet to recover. Artists and creatives lost their jobs, exhibition prospects, and other opportunities due to the closures, and mutual aid came to the forefront. Necessary emergency grants and mutual aid funds to benefit artists sprang up in response, including an effort by numerous organizations to award $10 million in individual artist grants; relief funds by the Getty, Warhol, and Frankenthaler foundations; and recently, $12 million in relief grants distributed by the LA County Department of Arts and Culture.
Many of us picked up — and quickly lost — new hobbies during the last year. (Say hello to my nine new plants and my maintained obsession with bread baking, but goodbye to my short-lived stint with needlepoint.) Being stuck inside brought out the creativity of many, and some light shone through the clouds to bring us projects to brighten our days, like these ad hoc recreations of historical paintings, or this makeshift gerbil museum of rodent Masterpieces. Meanwhile, artists did their part to help out the essential workers on the frontlines of the pandemic by decorating hospital ICUs with artwork and donating medical supplies.
Compounding the financial strife weighing down the US population, the loss of human life is, for many, unfathomable. An artist-led vigil for coronavirus victims, held on October 6, mourned the 212,000 dead in a moving march through Queens. Since then, the US death toll has surpassed 300,000: an unimaginable loss of life ultimately caused by government negligence and the privileging of profits over people.
Amid the pandemic, hate crimes and bigotry against Asians and Asian-Americans rose due to xenophobic COVID-19 conspiracies. Organizations like StopDiscriminAsian and NYC’s Museum of Chinese in America worked to document and raise awareness about this increasing violence.
In the midst of the pandemic, millions took to the streets in protest of brutality after the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man and father who was killed by police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis. Discussions about racism, police violence, and discrimination were amplified as we publicly mourned Floyd; Breonna Taylor, an EMT killed in her home by officers during a no-knock raid; and other victims of systemic racism. Conversations around the ethics of photojournalism — whether or not to blur or omit the faces of protesters to protect them from police surveillance — also played out.
Museums began to release oft barren, repetitive statements invoking the names of these victims. People on social media, including their employees, began to call out these museums for their failure to enact principles of racial equity in their own institutions. Letters on behalf of museum staff calling for institutional reckonings around race and equality were publicized.
A particularly tumultuous series of events played out at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). In the wake of Floyd’s murder, the museum deleted Instagram comments by a former employee, Taylor Brandon, who told the museum: “You don’t only get to amplify black artists during a surge of black mourning and pain.” The institution soon faced a reckoning over institutional racism and income inequality, with demands for a “radical reexamination” of the board of trustees, culminating in the resignation of multiple administrators.
Meanwhile, former and current employees of the Brooklyn Museum came forward to denounce “the harm and daily mistreatment” of workers of color at the institution; the director of MOCA Detroit, Elysia Borowy-Reeder, was terminated after dozens of workers came forward to lambaste the museum’s “toxic work environment”; and Guggenheim chief curator Nancy Spector stepped down from the museum amid controversy. Also, an open letter written by former and current staff of the New Orleans Museum of Art accused the institution of fostering a homophobic and “plantation-like culture,” and Poets House staff accused the nonprofit of retaliating against staff’s efforts to unionize in the face of microaggressions.
Another result of the summer’s anti-racist protests was the reckoning with public statues commemorating the Confederacy, colonialism, and other racist figures: Virginia, home to the most Confederate statues of any US state, removed a number of the memorials and remains embattled in its efforts to remove the remainder, and the American Museum of Natural History agreed to remove its infamous Theodore Roosevelt statue. (The statue, however, remains heavily guarded and is still standing.) According to one study, 1,712 Confederate monuments remain on display in the US.
One vocal opponent to the removal of these statues is, perhaps, the most contentious figure of the year: COVID-19 denier and xenophobe, Donald Trump.
A number of artists used their creative skills to encourage voting in the November presidential election. Ahead of the high-stakes vote, Hyperallergic took a look at Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’s voting records regarding the arts. To encourage turnout, Black artists painted Biden-Harris murals in cities across the US, Indigenous activists launched a political art campaign to distribute posters and stickers, and graphic and street artists from almost every state encouraged young voters to head to the polls. Artists, curators, and other cultural workers spoke to Hyperallergic about their unique voting experiences during the pandemic, in which more Americans voted by mail than ever before. Their responses leaned toward the hopeful, and their votes ultimately contributed to Biden’s election as the 46th US president.
Amid election news, the cultural genocide of Armenians in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war was pushed to the wayside by mainstream US media this year. In Los Angeles, women of She Loves Collective proceeded through the city to raise awareness about the war in two performances, equipped with symbolic rifles in remembrance of their Armenian ancestors. Writer Nevdon Jamgochian reported on the erasure of millennia-old Armenian monuments in Artsakh, emboldened by Google Arts & Culture, which published a page on the region written by the Azerbaijani regime. Art historians, archaeologists, and activists encouraged people to register a complaint with Google Arts & Culture to inform them of the possible cultural impacts of the website; after the article was published, the pages related to Karabakh were made inaccessible.
Another catastrophic global event that took place this year was the devastating explosion in the port of Beirut. Over 200 lives were lost, over 6,500 were injured, and many lost their livelihoods as businesses, homes, and more were destroyed in the blast. Galleries like Marfa’, Galerie Tanit, Sfeir Semler Gallery, and the Saleh Barakat Gallery were damaged, along with the Sursock Museum, Ashkal Alwan, the Arab Image Foundation, the Beirut Art Center, and the Aïshti Foundation. In the wake, artists and nonprofits came together to raise funds in support of the Beiruitis whose livelihoods were affected.
The crisis of immigrant rights surfaced in myriad ways throughout the year: artists foregrounded the experiences of detained children; the Center for Art Law launched an Immigration Clinic for Visual Artists to aid international artists through the laborious process of obtaining an artist visa to the United States; and the Trump administration attacked the security of international students on multiple occasions. A study by the Center for an Urban Future also reported that immigrant-serving arts organizations have been hit hardest during the pandemic.
As of December 31, earth will have exactly seven years left before global warming reaches unsustainable levels, according to the Climate Clock. The eco-conscious artwork, created by artists Gan Golan and Andrew Boyd, was temporarily installed in New York City’s Union Square this fall. “Earth has a deadline,” the LED screen flickered every few minutes, displaying the time we have left to achieve zero emissions in years, days, hours, minutes, seconds, and tenths of seconds.
Finally, I extend a special thank you to staff writers Hakim Bishara and Valentina Di Liscia, whose bylines appear on most of the pieces cited above. The pair spent the year tirelessly chasing stories about the election, the pandemic, international politics, and all of that which defined this consequential year, 2020.