Only five to seven percent of museums worldwide were open as of April 29, 2020, according to the International Council of Museums. On International Museum Day, May 18, UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) and the International Council of Museums warned that 13 percent of museums worldwide would permanently close, after closing temporarily during the COVID-19 pandemic. In mid-July, the American Alliance of Museums predicted that one in three, or approximately 12,000 museums, may permanently close in the next few months. These dire predictions resulted from the economic losses suffered by these museums and is a reflection of the difficult times facing the nation’s, and the world’s art institutions as they continue to navigate the effect of COVID-19 on their operations.
One free, bright spot in art viewing, both nationally and internationally, was access to public art, outdoors, with inherent social distancing, which increased as spring arrived and outdoor art spaces and parks announced their openings. People that had been quarantined at home longed to get outside. The environment benefited from decreased automobile and plane traffic, as wildlife again braved city streets. As museums reopened, the weather was once again beautiful.
Never was this more apparent than in California, where the lean air allowed rare breathtaking views of the Sierra Nevada range and the ocean from Los Angeles. Every museum in the state had been closed since mid-March until Governor Gavin Newsom gave outdoor museums and galleries permission to reopen in midMay, and several did, with Los Angeles County waiting until their COVID19 transmission and test positivity numbers looked better.
People ventured to outdoor settings, including sculpture parks and outdoor public art displays, in expansive ground throughout the country. Outdoor art spaces opened at the Aspen Art Museum (July 1), Glenstone (June 4), Storm King, in New Windsor, New York (July 15), Dia Bridgehampton (July 25) and Dia Beacon (August 7).
The massive Socrates Sculpture Park in Queens, New York, along the East River, and Michigan’s Legacy Art Park in Thompsonville, Michigan, with 30 wilderness acres and 40 permanent sculptures allowed easy social distancing. People rediscovered the de Cordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts, although its buildings were closed, and Seattle’s Olympic Sculpture Park’s nine acres of sculpture. The New Orleans Museum of Art’s Sculpture Garden, full of Henry Moore, Frank Stella and Louise Bourgeois sculptures, afforded unique outdoor art experiences. In San Francisco, Andy Goldsworthy’s “Spire” of felled trees in Presidio Park never closed, symbolizing rebirth as its felled trees sprouted new growth.
In Brazil, the Instituto Inhotim in Brumadinho’s 3000 acres provided communion with sculptures that include Yayoi Kusama’s “Narcissus Garden Inhotim,” its 500 stainless steel balls floating on water reflecting the newly blue, smokeless skies above. England’s Yorkshire Sculpture Park in West Bretton, with what has been called the world’s greatest rotating collection of outdoor sculpture, including installations by Ai Weiwei and Alfredo Jaar, also includes a permanent collection of works by James Turrell, Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore that drew crowds that had no problem walking far apart.
As Europe’s COVID-19 positivity rates decreased to one percent, museums began opening, requiring wearing masks and restricting reservations and limiting time slots so people could social distance. The Louvre, d’Orsay and the Chateau Gardens at Versailles opened in May, as did all Austrian museums; the Fondation Beyeler in Riehen, Switzerland, reopened on May 11. Belgium’s Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst in Antwerp and the Royal Museum of Fine Art and Old Masters Museum in Brussels opened on May 19, followed by the WIELS Contemporary Art Center in Brussels on May 22. In Spain, which had been
hard hit by the pandemic, the Museo Picasso Málaga opened on May 26. Queensland Art Gallery opened on June 22. The Sharjah Art Foundation opened on June 26 with the Tate Britain, Tate Modern, Tate Liverpool and Tate St. Ives, with large, open spaces, often open to the outside, in areas not frequented by many city locals. Vienna’s MAK reopened on July 1.
But the lesson was learned. Outdoor spaces, sculpture parks and exhibitions of public art in outdoor space that easily allowed social distancing had an important place in the art scene. Even trees and water, and certainly outdoor sculpture and installations, are as museum worthy as anything inside and less accessible during current times, bringing an alternative to white-walled museum viewing.
Gabriela Salazar, in her “Access Grove, Soft Stand,” 2019, at Socrates Sculpture Park in Queens, New York, hung red velvet museum ropes in front of a stand of tall trees, marking them as if they were being displayed in a museum, akin to Marcel Duchamp’s putting a urinal on a museum wall, thus making it “art.”
Hauser & Wirth — the art world’s largest conglomerate’s farm-like satellite location at Somerset, England, and its island art park at Menorca, Spain, and Dia’s Beacon and Bridgehampton, New York locations — has lured visitors since reopening. Art aficionados have also been trekking to Marfa, located in the desert between Houston and Dallas, to see large-scale works light up the desert.
Ireland’s 5,000-year-old land art and the Henry Moore sculpture in Dublin’s public gardens, Yinka Shonibare’s “Sail,” outside the Sackler Museum of African Art, and Lee Ufan’s “Open Dimension” at the Hirshhorn Plaza, thrill visitors in Washington, D.C., and William Jauquet’s “Embracing Couple,” made of bronze and steel on display in the Sculpture Garden at Edgewood Orchard Galleries in Door County, Wisconsin, all delight and enthrall visitors.
For several years, art museums have sought to bring nature into their spaces. With its latest building, the Whitney Museum extended its space to the High Line, New York’s latest urban park, fashioned from the former High Line/West Side Elevated Rail Line. When the Whitney designed its space on Madison Avenue, it cut windows into the walls above the stairway, affording a view of the roof gardens next door. Its newest space on Gansevoort Street in downtown Manhattan goes further with a roof garden showing sculpture and installation and a view of the adjacent Hudson River.
From March’s windy, cold days when our stay-at-home orders, be they self-imposed or government-ordered, began to take hold as the magnitude of the COVID-19 pandemic slowly became apparent, we quickly learned how much we missed journeying to galleries and art museums. We survived April by visiting online galleries and entertaining ourselves in viewing rooms, thankfully making it to May, when the skies had cleared and budding trees produced flowers that rivaled those in the paintings we had missed. As we ventured further in our walks and hikes, we rediscovered the natural environment and all its offerings, seeing them in a newly clear sky. The natural environment seemed limitless, not crowded. We found that we didn’t even need the velvet rope to remind us that these scenes which inspired the Hudson River School painters, The Transcendentalists, the landscape painters on the East Coast, and abstract expressionists on the West Coast were beautiful and inspiring and free viewing.
While not new, sculpture parks and gardens, outdoor viewing rooms are, to some, a newly discovered and rediscovered addition to museum culture. They meld the man-made with nature, joining together to frame an environmental artistic initiative that binds humans’ production to the world that supports and inspires us all. The pandemic lessened the pollution so we could better see the beautiful and important environment, which, framed and highlighted with man-made sculptures and installations, is an available, and everlasting art form, for us all. With our minds remembering the natural environment, so beautifully framed and exhibited, we again visit art museums, noticing anew the landscapes, seascapes, skies, and majestic mountains depicted by artists, and the forms inspired by them and by our search for beauty and meaning. We notice the dedication of artists to depict the love of the natural landscape and the forms inspired by it. Perhaps there was a silver lining in the closing of museums, and in their rediscovery, after all.
Nancy Nesvet is a writer correspondent for Artscope Magazine and the president of the Art, Labour, and Education Institute. This article is reprinted from Artscope.