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VISUAL ARTS

‘We are being tried’: How museum curators are adapting for the present and future

Petra Slinkard, curator of fashion and textiles at the Peabody Essex Museum, is reorganizing exhibits originally slated to open this summer.
Petra Slinkard, curator of fashion and textiles at the Peabody Essex Museum, is reorganizing exhibits originally slated to open this summer.Bob Packert/© 2019 Peabody Essex Museum

Peabody Essex Museum curator Petra Slinkard was excited about a certain shipment — 60 carefully chosen women’s clothing items on loan from the Kunstmuseum Den Haag, in the Netherlands. But when the pandemic spread through the world, closing museums along with it, shipping the clothes became impossible. The boxes never arrived. And the exhibit was put on hold indefinitely.

The novel coronavirus toppled plans for hundreds of projects that were years in the making, including Slinkard’s “Made It: The Women Who Revolutionized Fashion” (originally set to open May 16). Museums around the world will likely remain shuttered for another few months, possibly longer. Yet curatorial planning and other behind-the-scenes work continues.

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If they’ve managed to head off furloughs, art curators are still busy piecing together exhibits from home. They’re organizing the next few years of projects from their laptops and virtually tending to collections they cannot currently touch.

“We are being tried — tested in a way,” Slinkard said. “Usually if you line up a bunch of dominoes and one falls, they all fall. But it’s the curators’ job to make sure there’s some sense of normalcy when the museums reopen.”

The Globe spoke with four Massachusetts curators about the issues they face in the coronavirus era and what it all means for the future of art museums and galleries.

Access to galleries and collections

“The biggest challenge is not having access to the actual collection,” said Harvard Art Museums chief curator Soyoung Lee, who used to travel from her home in New York City to Cambridge every week to walk the institution’s halls. “Whether it’s research for something we are writing or an exhibition we are planning, one of the key steps is to see the work and look at it from a new lens.”

Lee and her colleagues are currently planning an exhibition that will highlight acquisitions since the museum’s 2014 expansion. Circumstances now force them to work from downloadable images.

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Harvard Art Museums chief curator Soyoung Lee used to travel to Cambridge weekly from her New York City home.
Harvard Art Museums chief curator Soyoung Lee used to travel to Cambridge weekly from her New York City home. R. Leopoldina Torres

“We have the images, of course, but it’s not the same as looking at the actual work,” she said. “You don’t get that real life quality, like the textures [and] the materials.”

Photos also often fail to capture dimensions, making it impossible to visualize how certain works will look in the gallery, Slinkard said. That poses a special threat to exhibitions slated to open in the coming months, all of which will need finishing touches that require physically handling the art, like wall design and cleaning.

For some small galleries, like the MIT List Visual Arts Center, working from the exhibition space is less vital. The center does not own an expansive collection, relying instead on rotating exhibitions. Curator Natalie Bell was responsible for digitally scouting nearly every piece and artist before the pandemic. “A lot of the experience now is the same as before,” she said.

Across the board, curators have shifted their focus to tasks that can be carried out remotely, like writing catalog books and ramping up digital content. But they’re still counting down the days before they can see the art in person again.

“Works of art take on roles as familial characters for me," said Esther Bell, chief curator at the Clark Art Institute. “I’m missing them like I miss my family.”

Searching the world for great art

A key part of the curator’s job involves hunting down great art, often flying to far corners of the world to visit artist studios in pursuit of the perfect piece. “The traditional curatorial method of working is that we visit places to see the art,” said Lee, who supervises nearly 30 curators and fellows. “Shelter-in-place has completely obviously stopped that.”

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For now, video conferencing and photos have replaced the in-person experience. Slinkard was due in India this month for a visit with renowned designer Manish Arora, but has grown accustomed to the 9 p.m. video calls that replaced her big trip.

These curators are bracing themselves for the possibility that in-person trips may not resume for many months or even years.

As for the List center’s Bell, she already relied mostly on virtual meetings. Instead of speaking from her Cambridge office with artists from Mexico City, Madrid, and PyeongChang, South Korea, she contacts them from home now — sometimes with her baby in the background. “It’s pretty easy to maintain virtual studio visits with artists,” she said. “Everything feels like a strange new version of itself right now."

Natalie Bell from MIT List Visual Arts Center on Zoom with artist Leslie Thornton
Natalie Bell from MIT List Visual Arts Center on Zoom with artist Leslie ThorntonNatalie Bell

Building for the future

With all the uncertainty, institutional survival is of paramount importance. Layoffs and budget cuts have already hit the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Museum of Fine Arts implemented furloughs until July. The reality is that cost-cutting can go only so far until admissions revenue returns.

“What we want first and foremost is for everyone to be able to open their doors and just have something — some kind of programming,” Lee said.

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Will exhibitions need to be more spread out, allowing visitors to keep 6 feet from one another? None of the curators the Globe spoke with had concrete plans for a physically distanced project (though they entertained the possibility).

Esther Bell from the Clark Institute of Art
Esther Bell from the Clark Institute of ArtTucker Bair

Most were making hopeful plans for reopenings in the late summer or early fall. The MIT List Visual Arts Center’s summer openings have been rescheduled for October. The Clark Art Institute’s outdoor “Ground/Work” exhibition, with six new works spread across the museum’s 140-acre campus, still hopes to see warm weather — Bell said it will be a “wonderful way to celebrate” being together again. Even the MFA pegged July 1 as its opening day. (Harvard Art Museums will abide by the universities’ decision.)

One thing is for certain — eventually, institutions will reopen as gathering places ideal for collective healing, spots of beauty and life. When that day comes, curators will be ready.

“Viewing art in person — that in-person experience — is everything,” said Bell, from the Clark Art Institute. “I’m preserving that for us and for everyone.”

Diti Kohli can be reached at diti.kohli@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @ditikohli_