UP CLOSE: A curatorial evolution

A curatorial evolution

At Yale’s art institutions, the COVID-19 pandemic has incited a wave of change in programming and how curators approach their work.

Published on September 15, 2020

Walking down Chapel Street is a different experience today. Quaint and bustling a mere seven months ago, the street now exudes a sense of slow resurgence with half-shuttered stores and delivery-only restaurants. For a moment, a ray of sunlight streaks across the Starbucks crosswalk, rendering edges of the intersection blurry. Things almost feel different. But then the haze lifts, revealing two buildings whose doors, typically open to the public, remain indefinitely shut: the Yale University Art Gallery and the Yale Center for British Art.

“The life of a museum is interacting with the public, and that has entirely been put on hold,” said Laurence Kanter, chief curator and the Lionel Goldfrank III Curator of European Art at the YUAG.

Responding to the global pandemic, the two institutions joined artistic institutions across the world by temporarily closing this March. But behind closed doors, work for curators is not decreasing.

According to Kanter, curators at the YUAG have continued to catalogue and maintain collections, communicate with lenders and assist Yale’s teaching faculty with course materials. The closure gave Keely Orgeman, the Seymour H. Knox, Jr., Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, time to engage with scholarship, develop curator-led online programming and reflect upon objects in the museum’s collections.

Closures also led to rapid programming changes. Despite the postponement of exhibitions, YUAG Director Stephanie Wiles said the museum continued to lay out a five-year strategic plan including renovation projects. Wiled added that current events regarding ongoing police violence against Black Americans have added urgency to the gallery’s commitments to diversity, inclusion and access.

To continue community engagement post-closures, institutions increased their online presence to bring resources to the general public. Christopher Renton, associate director of marketing and communications at the Peabody Museum of Natural History, said the pandemic caused staff to quickly “pivot” in order to create digital programming and keep their audiences engaged.

Yet the most onerous work for curators has been in their own minds. They must grapple with how museums can both adapt to the current public health crisis and prepare for a post-pandemic world.


The traditional gallery experience doesn’t necessarily prioritize pandemic protocols, especially in museums with large crowds and tight spaces. These practical concerns have forced museums to rethink how they engage with the public.

Immediate concerns for the physical museum include implementing provisions for social distancing, decreasing museum capacity, marking unidirectional pathways through gallery spaces, restricting usage of headsets and touchscreens, rethinking the logistics of artwork transport and considering future programming uncertainties.

But changes must also occur outside of a traditional in-person gallery experience. Wiles noted that all museums and cultural institutions recognize the need to continue building a digital presence by providing virtual access to exhibitions and collections.

The YUAG is working with the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, YCBA and Peabody to improve cross-collection online searches. The Peabody has been hosting virtual gallery talks and lectures, and is preparing for their first large-scale virtual fiesta.

Agnete Lassen, associate curator of the Yale Babylonian Collection, said curators have been converting two exhibitions into digital experiences. She noted that curators must make different aesthetic considerations when organizing online exhibits. When creating physical exhibitions, it is important to consider colors, sizes and spatial relationships between objects — none of which translate well to digital mediums. Yet the virtual world offers novel opportunities with pop-up windows, video insertions of curator-led tours and options to embed longer blocks of text for interested readers.

“I think this is something that’s gonna stay for the long run,” Lassen said. “We don’t think of [online exhibitions] as static; rather, we keep creating new content that we can add. So there’s a lot of flexibility and so much potential that we still have to explore.”

This transition posed particular challenges for some of Yale’s artistic institutions. Kanter said that museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art have always maintained a massive digital interface, while the Morgan Library and Museum and the Frick Collection shifted all public outreach to digital platforms. But he added that since the YUAG did not expend many resources on its virtual identity pre-pandemic, the shift to digital was a “major change.” Similarly, Renton said that since the Peabody had grown into a chiefly “in-person experience” over the years, switching to digital had been challenging.

We’re not going to do digital exhibitions — that’s besides the point. We strongly feel that our purpose is to offer the public the opportunity to encounter great works of art directly and personally.

—Laurence Kanter, chief curator at the YUAG

Yet while digital programming continues to provide new avenues, not all curators are open to digital exhibitions.

“We’re not going to do digital exhibitions — that’s besides the point,” Kanter said. “We strongly feel that our purpose is to offer the public the opportunity to encounter great works of art directly and personally.”

While Kanter agrees that digital access to art is better than no access, he said that anyone with access to art can disseminate it digitally. He believes a museum’s “highest goal” lies in its unique ability to grant direct physical access to the public.

The challenges museums must contend with extend beyond the digital realm. Highlighting the potential for the pandemic to manifest as a global financial crisis, Orgeman noted financial and budgetary constraints.

“Since we don’t know long-term financial impacts, we have to be more intentional and collaborative about our use of resources,” Orgeman said. “I think more museums will do what Yale’s doing — develop installations centered around existing collections. I don’t see blockbuster exhibitions returning for another few years.”


(David Zheng)

In a time before COVID-19, museums across the world were already moving toward digital content, only at a slower pace. The current crisis has curators confronting challenges posed by the online format as occasions for innovation.

“Everyone hopes to use moments of crisis as learning opportunities,” Wiles said. “One thing we know is that when we look back at ourselves in two, three, or five years, we want to have used these lessons to help make the institution we work for a better and stronger place.”

Orgeman foresees greater engagement between contemporary artists and museums, either through online programs or commissioned collaborations.

“One of the things that has really become clear during the lockdown is everybody being forced to move online suddenly makes the world seem a lot smaller,” Lassen said. “I really feel like there’s been a lot of interaction in these academic communities that have come from the lockdown.”

Four months ago, the Yale Babylonian Collection, along with five core institutions — the Harvard Museum of the Ancient Near East, the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, the Oriental Institute, the Penn Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art — co-founded “#ConnectingCollections.”

Elizabeth Knott, a postdoctoral associate at the Yale Babylonian Collection who spearheaded the initiative, said that #ConnectingCollections explores connections across museum collections focused on the ancient world. Using monthly thematic posts on Instagram and other social media platforms, the project exposes the work that lies behind exhibition planning, scholarly research, conservation efforts and storage practices. For instance, the Yale Babylonian Collection and Penn Museum shared and compared two tablets from the Epic of Gilgamesh that were written by the same scribe but wound up in separate collections.

The Getty, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the Morgan Library and Museum have since joined the initiative. Lassen said the team reached out to museums in Iraq, Jordan and Turkey, and the Slemani Museum in Iraq recently agreed to collaborate. Lassen said since it was easy to invite curators from Europe or the Middle East to a Zoom meeting, it had been very fruitful to speak with curators across museums. She hopes this connection lasts beyond COVID-19.

“Improving digital connections is something museums had to learn anyway, but COVID-19 sort of gave us a head start in forcing us into it,” Lassen said. “It was something that sprang from necessity, but in many ways it’s really given us something that we were not expecting in terms of engagement with other museums and our curatorial colleagues, but also a much wider audience.”

On a similar note, Renton noted that it has been positive to see the Yale Peabody identity extend far beyond New Haven. He said in-person research talks usually had an audience of 60 to 80 people, but some of their online lectures were attended by over 300 people from around the world.

Kailen Rogers, assistant director of exhibitions at the Peabody, said that last fall, the museum attempted to digitize a diorama using a 3D digital scanning process called photogrammetry. During the pandemic, they extended this project and partnered with the Center for Collaborative Arts and Media to digitize all 11 of the museum’s dioramas for a research initiative called “Lens Reality.”

“This new way of looking at exhibitions is something we’re investing into at the CCAM,” said CCAM Director Dana Karwas. Karwas added she is excited to see how creative thinkers adapt to the “slower pace” the digital transition will bring. Instead of a mere tool to create art, she envisions digital components as more integrated frameworks for artistic design.

“There are some really exciting ways to think about all these arts disciplines — even though we have to put a pause on some parts, other avenues are opening up. I am excited about the shift, and about embracing it.”

There are some really exciting ways to think about all these arts disciplines — even though we have to put a pause on some parts, other avenues are opening up. I am excited about the shift, and about embracing it.

—CCAM Director Dana Karwas


Sake parties, conferences in Asia and a new Instagram account are a few events characterizing Cynthia Rubin’s “pretty satisfying Zoom life.” Rubin, a new media artist based in New Haven, has embraced this time to try new things, change her practice and connect with other artists.

Marta Kuzma, dean of the Yale School of Art, said that as curators scrambled to revise their representation of artists, it empowered the individual artist to find their own way to present their work and curate projects. Kuzma sees artists responding to activism and forging platforms of public discussion.

“It’s a time for great creativity — the pandemic hasn’t really created any spare time,” Rubin said. “People are much more interested in genuinely looking at each other’s work.”

Finding success in visual art, like many other practices, often involves networking. Virtual platforms have not only made it easier to meet people, Rubin said, but the networking itself has shifted from simply establishing connections to exchanging ideas. Additionally, access to networks has increased transparency between artists and curators, making exhibition planning much easier.

Aki Sasamoto, assistant professor at the Yale School of Art, said that when the pandemic began, she considered expanding her art to video. But despite ample time to learn, she does not believe an artist can simply switch from their preferred medium.

Sasamoto views the current public demand for digital art as “momentary.” Surges in demand for particular art forms ebb and flow throughout history, and Sasamoto is confident the art world will regain equilibrium.

“This year, people are looking into how they can make art that is compatible with digital formats,” Sasamoto said. “I would imagine there will be a lot more artists who will come out of this, but that doesn’t mean other kinds of art have died.”

Neither Rubin nor Sasamoto foresee digital platforms fully replacing in-person experiences. Sasamoto said the relationship between the two mediums is not necessarily competitive. Instead, viewing art online inspires people to see the artwork at museums. “People want to hang out with people — it is tied to being human,” Sasamoto said.


(David Zheng)

Even as the immediate effects of the pandemic recede, curators have begun to engage with its more long-term implications. To many artists and curators, it seems as though several aspects of the museum experience will be forever altered.

For instance, Lassen noted that virtual exhibits introduce the ability to zoom into smaller objects and highlight different components of a work for interpretation.“Now when we build physical exhibits, if we don’t have that opportunity, it would feel like something’s missing,” Lassen said. She mentioned it would be possible to use virtual reality technology in physical museums to recreate this magnifying effect.

It’s possible that such constant adaptations have been the “norm” for museums. Kanter described museums as “constantly evolving.” He said that when museums were first conceived, they were exclusive to a small group of people. Since then, museums have expanded over time to include different variations of groups of people, becoming more academically and intellectually oriented. Kanter added that every generation has a different idea of what is best for a museum: Artistic preferences constantly change, and they’re changing today.

“Each period, people thought differently about what was important, and to a certain extent, it is the museum’s responsibility to respond to that and show people what they want to see,” Kanter said. “But it’s also a museum’s responsibility to educate the public and show them more than what they’re asking for. Otherwise, they’re like sports franchises or movie theaters — simply a commercial response to demand.”

But curators have varying ideas about the extent to which museums should control the narrative. According to Lassen, since digitizing collections allows anyone to access them, engagement with art has become a lot more “democratic.” She noted that in her area of expertise, ancient Near Eastern arts, curatorial practices have evolved from curators acting as “gatekeepers” of artifacts to providing open access to everyone.

Lassen thinks curators need to be open to letting other people question curatorial practices and letting other people tell their own stories.

Going forward, Lassen would like to solicit curatorial input from the community. She plans to invite community members to curate online exhibits by allowing them to choose objects of interest and write label texts.

The democratic nature of increased access to online collections contradicts the possibility that in-person access to museums will become even more exclusive amid health and safety concerns. Though large numbers of people across the globe can attend virtual museum events for free, Orgeman mentioned possibilities of selective in-person reopenings, ticketed sales and strict museum capacity limits.

“The future will be a very different reality, we don’t know what that will look like,” Kanter said. “Some days I fear it will be more commercial than less. Some days, I hope it will return to what it was meant to be — a philanthropic opportunity for the public.”

(Daniel Zhao)


Powered by