On a bright and steamy-hot morning last week, I circled the streets around the Institute of Contemporary Art, again and again, on a fruitful search for curbside parking. A month before, meters in the Seaport were plentiful, traffic next-to-nothing. This time, the new normal felt a lot like the old normal: No parking, anywhere, anyhow, for less than $40? Boston is healing.
It’s been a long haul to get here. Abruptly shuttered by the March lockdowns, museums have been in a slow eggshell-walk back to public life. Being relegated to Phase 3 of Governor Baker’s reopening plan left them waiting for months, and, when they were finally ready, a little longer still. The ICA’s planned reopening date of July 7 had to be pushed back with only a few days notice when the state stalled Phase 3 by a week.
I’m not sure what I expected, walking back through those doors. The museum had hardly changed — the ICA extended all of its spring exhibitions, most of which had just opened when the lockdowns began. But the world around it had shifted, in fits and spasms of what I hope are the beginnings of a rough rebirth. As the virus ravaged the city and state in the early spring, museums stood by, shut tight. As mass protests over racial injustice flooded city streets all over the country in May and June, shuttered museums could do little more than watch.
At the ICA in particular, you know it had to sting. A standout among its peers for its unabashedly inclusive, activist agenda, the ICA had to be dying to join this fight. From the sidelines, it pitched in where it could, directing its depleted resources across the harbor through a food program to residents in East Boston, where its Watershed exhibition space makes its home. But online programming — a ghost of a replacement for any museum’s bricks-and-mortar offerings — is no place to join the fray. And so, like us, they waited.
And the truth is, we’ll all be waiting a while longer to know what this means for institutions like the ICA. For now, getting back on its feet and bringing its people back to work is herculean enough. Stronger statements will be made in November, the virus willing, when the ICA opens William Kentridge’s “KABOOM,” about African porters being excluded from the history of the First World War; and “i’m yours: Encounters with Art in Our Times,” for which the ICA will dip into its own collection to interrogate itself and its role in this strange new world.
But for now, the museum is a time capsule, a masked and sanitized portal to the time before. The lone casualty of the lockdowns here, hopefully temporary, is Yayoi Kusama’s “Love Is Calling,” one of her beloved Infinity Rooms (and one of the ICA’s prized recent acquisitions). With increasing evidence of the virus’s lingering in enclosed, poorly-ventilated spaces, communal gathering in a sealed mirrored box is off the table.
One of the very last reviews I wrote in that pre-COVID time was of the ICA’s Sterling Ruby show. Impressed as I was by his fitful, makerly virtuosity, the exhibition was hard to engage with this time around. Ruby’s big, blustery pieces — ceramics and Formica, metalworks and resin, fashion design, outsize stuffies — have a look-at-me showiness that feels out of touch with the times. The show didn’t change. I did. That’s not the ICA’s fault. But it’s not mine, either.
Still, there are counterbalancing forces here: Tschabalala Self’s savage, tender, sewn-together painting collages plainspokenly celebrate Black life; Carolina Caycedo’s light-as-air installations of fishing nets and debris gathered from riverbanks and shorelines declare solidarity with Indigenous subsistence and its ties to the land. It reminded me of what I already knew: This is an institution that anticipated, if not the specifics of the world we’re facing, then the simmering malaise that made it so. What they do next is important. I’ll be watching.
A minor miracle had me across town in 15 minutes — Boston is healing, but there’s far to go before our 45-minutes-in-gridlock returns to prove it — and to the front steps of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, also in stasis and reopened on the heels of the state’s mid-July mandate. When I arrived, there was a little gut-check moment: After circling for a good half-hour — again — I found a spot on the Fenway, by the Museum of Fine Arts’s back door. The city’s anchor art museum remains locked tight, with no fixed reopening date. Walking from my car to the Gardner meant passing alongside the MFA, silent as a tomb. Hurricane Isaias’s recent twirl through the region had left the museum’s grounds untended, littered with branches and leaves, a reminder that anything resembling normal is still a long way off.
Still, it’s odd how the surreal can become de rigueur. At the Gardner I barely noticed the masks, the arrows on the floor, the laminated signs tacked virtually everywhere. (“The Museum is committed to the safety of all our visitors and regularly cleans and disinfects surfaces, including water fountains” read one I noticed while bending down for a drink. Reassuring.)
There’s nothing new at the Gardner, either. But it reminded me of the powerful salve places like this can offer. With its homey proportions — that is, if you’re a wealthy widow with a taste for Renaissance art — the Gardner has an advantage, not least of which is its courtyard, green and blooming, flooding the galleries with a tropical perfume (and lending an odd feature to Adam Pendleton’s austere, black-and-white “Elements of Me” installation).
Despite its historical leanings, the Gardner anticipated elements of this year’s social upheavals, just as many of its museum peers had. Pendleton’s work is critical of a litany of exclusions of Black culture across a range of 20th-century avant-gardes, while “Boston’s Apollo,” at the top of the Gardner marquee, exhumes the story of Thomas McKeller, the Black man who was John Singer Sargent’s principal model for the white deities he painted for the Museum of Fine Arts rotunda. Any museum worth a damn has shifted in recent years to the vital role of questioning history, art and otherwise, and not just preserving it. That role has never been more important, or clearer.
Speaking of which, I spent some time recently at the Peabody Essex Museum, in Salem, where a massive expansion of the building complex last fall prompted a major rethink of the stories it tells. PEM has always been good at this — it’s a leader on this coast in representing Indigenous cultures alongside the standard American history fare, long the bread and butter of the museum sector in this country.
But now? At its best, PEM feels more prescient than most, ready for a new world few of us imagined. Charles Sandison’s “Figurehead 2.0,” a long-running multimedia installation in PEM’s historic East India Hall, feels prime for the moment: Cascading torrents of words and numbers surge on the walls, on the ceiling, and on the floor, as though blown by the breeze. They work as a kind of living algorithmic map of the dispersal of populations and trade as colonialism hurtled toward its 18th-century peak. (“Figureheads” refers to the carved statues embedded in the prow of explorer ships, many of which hang in the space, now immersed in Sandison’s data current.)
Before, “Figureheads” was just kind of cool: exhilarating, immersive, and dynamic, history in furiously fluid motion. But now it also feels damning — an insidious flow of goods, capital, and people, many against their will, as the modern world was remade by colonialism’s brute force.
Context is everything, and PEM’s is clearer than ever. A small exhibition, “Powerful Figures,” opened just before the lockdowns, examining idolatry and power in a breadth of world cultures, contemporary and historic. One of the things I love about PEM is its guiding ethos of examining culture broadly and making connections, instead of siloing off history and contemporaneity, art and artifact. “Powerful Figures” includes a 19th-century carved cedar mask from the Heiltsuk Indigenous people of British Columbia, but also Alison Saar’s “Weight,” a 2012 installation in which a tangle of objects — pots and pans, a scythe, chain — balance one side of a scale, with the figure of a young Black girl on the other. In this country, has there been a more outward, uglier symbol of power than the slave trade and its echoes of unending trauma, so resonant here and now? Its measuring of human life like chattel? Power takes many forms, many of them harrowing. If there was ever a moment to seize this truth, it’s now.
Speaking of now: Upstairs, Jacob Lawrence’s “The American Struggle” was in its final days. (It goes next to the Metropolitan Museum in New York, so you won’t have to travel far if you missed it.) Nothing could be more prime for the moment. Lawrence, one of the most important Black artists of the 20th century, made his name in the 1940s and ’50s with an epic series depicting the Great Migration of Black Americans from the Jim Crow South to the cities of the north. “Struggle,” a series of 30 paintings spanning the American Revolution to Westward Expansion, was his follow-up, an even more ambitious project to retell America’s creation myth with a broad and generous frame.
Lawrence’s history was a people’s history, of the peasants and immigrants, of the Indigenous people and slaves who fought alongside (and often against) history’s Great Men to establish a country where liberty and justice for all remains just as elusive now as it was then. The struggle continues. The optimist might even think that unfulfilled promise is closer than ever before. Seeing Lawrence now, in the time after the time before, left me with that rarest of senses: That history is happening in front of our eyes, and through the hardest struggle lies the most powerful hope.
Murray Whyte can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte.