Building Bridges Between Audiences and Participatory Art Experiences during COVID-19 — A collaboration between Juilee Decker, faculty in the College of Liberal Arts and Museum Studies Program Director and John Aäsp, Gallery Director for the College of Art and Design, Rochester Institute of Technology, and Art Bridges.
Through a new partnership with Art Bridges Foundation, City Art Space in Rochester bridged the gap between audiences and participatory art experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic by hosting a series of online events focused on representation, identity, and community.
I wrote this post in May 2021, at the conclusion of our exhibition and after conversations with John about our project. A post about our project may also be found on the Art Bridges Partner Stories website.
Our initial plan for the exhibition of Félix González-Torres’s Untitled (LA), 1991 was made with hopes of packed galleries, shoulder-to-shoulder selfies, and surges of attendance at our downtown Rochester gallery. None of those aspirations were possible given the COVID-19 pandemic. Confronted with the decision of whether we should further postpone our exhibition, we committed to delivering on our promise to our community of hosting this exhibition, even if delayed, despite COVID.
As we waited for our campus to resume some in-person operations in the Fall 2020, we were supported by the Bridge Ahead Initiative which enabled us to purchase equipment and develop a methodology for hybrid and online programming to engage our audiences more deeply and to help us document and promote our exhibitions.
Untitled (LA), was on view at City Art Space, the downtown art gallery home of Rochester Institute of Technology, from October 2020 through February 2021. Due to the social distancing restrictions imposed by the CDC due to the COVID-19 pandemic, City was the only gallery space with art on view during this portion of the academic year because all other spaces were converted to studio or classrooms.
To prepare for the onsite exhibition and amplification and enhancement through online engagement, over the late summer 2020, we developed a suite of programs to support and extend the exhibition of Félix González-Torres’s Untitled (LA). From the outset, we intended for the work to be accessible—both physically and intellectually. First and foremost, the installation was on view and visible to audiences 24/7, with its placement in the mixed-use, formerly vacant department store, in a large nook of the gallery that faces an interior hall near the building entrance and a dental clinic. Second, the work was on view for four months, far longer than any other works and, in fact, overlapping with two other exhibitions that were community-based. For the Fall portion of the installation, González-Torres’s work was in conversation with an exhibition called Visible Voices, a community-based, crowdsourced exhibition focused on equality, Black Lives Matter, inclusivity, and justice. For the Spring portion of the installation, González-Torres’s work was in conversation with an exhibition called Beyond Addiction/Reframing Recovery, a curated show of photographs charting new understandings of addiction and recovery through visual storytelling. In this way, context could be drawn between the shows that were simultaneously on view, both of which informed the larger theme for our event programming—exclusion and inclusion as manifest through art, representation, and identity. Even as the gallery was open for limited attendance, our installation provided opportunities for learning and engagement through three online events, in addition to in-person gallery visits to see the work.
With this series of opportunities, we sought to demonstrate the ways in which disciplines and institutions have excluded difference from their practices and how individuals, groups, and communities have challenged these practices in seeking inclusion. Our events ranged from formal talks and facilitated panel discussions to “call-and-response” long-table discussions.
We had a singular goal with planning our suite of events in November, December, and February: to highlight not only the nature of the work as an installation made of readymade objects that encourages public interaction, but also as an expression of love and loss, particularly by an artist who confronted the difficulties faced by those affected by the HIV crisis, and those who seek compassion and understanding within LGBTQ+ and other underrepresented communities. These points are as relevant today, in their own context as well as our own—during the COVID-19 pandemic. Our events and the exhibition of Félix González-Torres’s work offered spaces for conversation, education, and understanding from a variety of perspectives as the dyadic nature of love and loss resonated in additional ways. (See additional information under “Programming” as that was the key manner of engagement, through our online events, given the limited hours of access due to COVID-19.)
We were also able to create these events as a series of conversations, over the four months—each getting progressively more intimate with our audience. We went from a high-level art historical overview to a panel discussion with members across our community who have some connection to LBGTQ+ rights and activism, stemming back to the early days in New York City.
The first event was a talk given by Niko Vicario, author and assistant professor of art and art history at Amherst College, followed by a Q&A led by one of our planning duo, John Äasp. attending to academic rigor and populating this first session with one person delivering a very traditional (in format) lecture and receiving Q&A was an ideal starting point for launching our series. It also enabled us to point back to Dr. Vicario’s lecture as a starting point for individuals interested in knowing more about Félix González-Torres or his work. Dr. Vicario also set the stage for that evening, as well as subsequent discussions, on how modern art and transnational art are entangled with political processes by asking how does the work of art operate in the world and how does the world operate in the work of art?
At our December 1 event, we learned that one of our panelists, Thomas Warfield, was one of the first “buddies”—members of the HIV AIDS community and their allies—who offered comfort, companionship, and support to those afflicted. Thomas volunteered at Gay Men’s Health Crisis and that he was present in Larry Kramer’s apartment for the founding of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), one of the most influential patient advocacy groups in history. This moment of discovery was palpable in our online audience—yes, even on Zoom—and thanks to our ability to record and transmit the events, these “discoverable” moments are available to a wider audience than ever imagined.
Our final event was a multi-format event, kicked off by Joshua Chambers-Letson, a professor of performance studies at Northwestern University. Following his comments, we offered a “long table” discussion forum. To explain, in advance, we gathered a dozen statements from curators, historians, museum workers, scholars, journalists, and other memory keepers. If they attended the event, we gave them the opportunity to “pass the mic” and share their resonances with Félix González-Torres’s work. In many cases, the individuals actually spoke to a comment made by our presenter or one of our community who previously spoke—enabling a beautiful, meaningful unfolding of resonances between and among our virtual community.
Through the exhibition of Félix González-Torres’s Untitled (LA), we provided our audience the opportunity to see and experience a formidable work of contemporary art while bearing witness to art’s method as an interpretive lens, a way of engaging in discussions about art and identity, sex, race, and gender. In addition, the Untitled (LA) afforded us the opportunity to center conversations about LGBTQ+ in a way that we have not in this gallery space previously, and to engage in conversations that are critical in this national moment of reckoning about difference and marginalization. Thus, we achieved our goal of sharing scholarly insight into exclusion in the canon of art history and museum practice (through Dr. Vicario’s and Prof. Chambers-Letson’s perspectives) and gaining perspective from the community (through our participants of our December event) and diverse scholars and practitioners from women, BIPOC, and queer communities who shared their thoughts at our February event.
Importantly, with the exhibition, digital support, and funds for programming, we were able to support speaker stipends and panelist funds for participating in our events, American Sign Language interpretation for all events, graphic design for all events, facilitator/notetakers, and a graphic recording/visual render of our final event of the series.
Given the length of the show, which was far longer than our gallery can usually allow, we were able to reference earlier talks and events and unite the trio of events. In this way, we could foster shared scholarly insight and persistent engagement through the sharing of perspectives from LGBTQ+ and other marginalized individuals and communities.
Second, we wanted to provide long-term access to what we did. To this end, we created a suite of resources to share about these events, the perspectives they garnered, and Félix González-Torres. The resources include the streamed events which were subsequently edited and a digital publication that serves as a resource related to the suite of events, the range of community perspectives, and relevant resources. The videos are available on YouTube, while the resources, encapsulated as “slim volume” PDF, is interactive and enables readers to click on links to take them to our web content.
Third, we were able to extend meaningful engagement by tapping one student in Art and Design and another Museum Studies to serve as mentees to curators John and Juilee. These two students worked alongside to produce the graphic design and the guide to our exhibition experience while richly contributing to our process and the end product—what the public ultimately experienced and remembers.
Event 1 – November 2020 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QrX9QyExy1U
Event 2 – December 2020 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KZfmrxOyWIg
Event 3 – February 2021 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bcSghYQhLNk
Félix González-Torres Untitled (LA), 1991 is jointly owned by Art Bridges and the Crystal Bridges Museum of Art. The work was view at Rochester Institute of Technology’s City Art Space in downtown Rochester, NY from Oct. 22, 2020 through Feb. 21, 2021. Courtesy: City Art Space, RIT College of Art and Design.
Félix González-Torres’s Untitled (L.A.). View from interior hall of Sibley Building looking in to City Art Space, Rochester, NY. Photo credit: Paris Benson
Social media posts focused on the experience of visitors with Félix González-Torres’s Untitled (L.A.). Here, @mungoponton celebrates “Baby’s first Félix González-Torres.” Installed at City Art Space, Rochester, NY.
Visitor interactions with Félix González-Torres’s Untitled (L.A.) City Art Space, Rochester, NY. Courtesy: City Art Space, RIT College of Art and Design.