New Collections: Pandemic Oral History Project
To document the cascade of public health, social, and financial crises set in motion by COVID-19, the Archives of American Art developed an oral history series that recorded responses to the global pandemic across the American art world. Conducted via video conferencing software, the Pandemic Oral History Project offers eighty-five short-form interviews with a diverse group of artists, teachers, curators, and administrators. (For a complete list of interviewees, see https://s.si.edu/pandemic.) Averaging twenty-five minutes long, each interview provides a firsthand account of and urgent insights into the narrator’s triumphs and tragedies in the summer of 2020. Comprised of more than thirty hours of recorded video and audio, the series is a significant record of an unprecedented time as it unfolded.
Collecting these stories during, rather than after, this extraordinary moment represents a new modality for the Archives, as does conducting oral histories at great distances and for such short durations. Our narrators spoke from every corner of the United States as well as from France, Lebanon, and Norway. In addition to me, three Archives curatorial staff conducted interviews: Josh T. Franco, national collector; Jacob Proctor, Gilbert and Ann Kinney New York Collector; and Matthew Simms, Gerald and Bente Buck West Coast Collector. We were joined by four external interviewers: Nyssa Chow, lecturer and Princeton Arts Fellow, Lewis Center for the Arts and codirector, NYC COVID-19 Oral History, Narrative and Memory Archive, Columbia University/INCITE; Fernanda Espinosa, oral historian and cultural organizer; Lara M. Evans, associate professor of art history, Institute of American Indian Arts; and Melissa Ho, curator of twentieth-century art, Smithsonian American Art Museum.
For the selection of interviewees, we were invested in capturing diverse voices and multigenerational perspectives. Thirty-five interviews were supported with federal funding from the Latino Initiatives Pool, administered by the Smithsonian Latino Center. The team continued to assess the breadth of narrators throughout the project, adjusting outreach as needed. When so many feel isolated and when traditional art spaces are disrupted and face existential risks, we are grateful to have reconnected with narrators already present in the Archives through personal papers, institutional records, and oral histories, while integrating many new voices into the collections.
Conducted with artists at every career stage and arts professionals in a range of institutions and roles, the interviews provide glimpses of the heterogeneity of experience as the pandemic unfurled. To grapple with the enormity of grieving, Hudson Valley-based multimedia artist Julia Santos Solomon discussed the personal impetus for her In Memoriam project, a large-scale reckoning with the act of mourning in isolation, for which she invited participation through social media. Quarantined in Northern California, geographer and photographer Trevor Paglen outlined his delayed or modified shows and the local disparities in public health response and safety measures, making an analogy to “trying to work underwater; like holding your breath, everything’s slow, you can’t really move, but you’re trying to get stuff done.” East Harlem and Austin, Texas-based printmaker Pepe Coronado addressed the major financial impact of not being able to host studio events (“being closed down to people,” in his words) along with the tremendous power of empathy in times of widespread strife. Mixed media artist Rubén Ortiz Torres, who works and teaches in San Diego, considered the friction between historical and idealized senses of what it means to be American and their potential synthesis. “I don’t think it’s about substituting one kind of intolerance for another,” he explained, proceeding to describe art’s capacity “to create certain mechanisms that allow for . . . processes of negotiation and reconciliation” across cultures. These themes of isolation, fear, social awareness, and adaptation weave themselves through every account, dipping between cold uncertainty and the warm hope of a better future.
Concerns with racism, particularly anti-Black racism in the US, emerged in nearly every conversation. Los Angeles-based painter Mark Bradford unpacked the soothing power of companionship and discussed the complexity of Black identity in 2020 and what meaningful change would entail: “It’s when we have all these voices collectively inside of [culture]. That’s what makes us sustainable. We both belong.” In Minneapolis, Cadex Herrera relived the communal vitality that sustained him as he collaborated in painting a mural to commemorate George Floyd, the African American man whose death by the hands of police officers spurred global calls for racial justice in the summer of 2020 and beyond. “[W]hen we’re dealing with racism, sexism, the fear of the other, we’re dealing with a veneer,” said painter Ed Bereal from his home in Bellingham, Washington, tracing the roots of intolerance. “What’s underneath that is you are terrified. . . . And part of that terror is you don’t know who you are.” From her home in Cupertino, California, fiber artist Consuelo Jimenez Underwood addressed the increasingly visible new generation of civil rights leaders: “I’m so happy you guys are here . . . [b]ecause you’re the ones that are going to lead us out of this place.
The human toll of the pandemic was also evident in the interviews, as many narrators took on the role of caretaker or suffered health crises themselves. In Brooklyn, painter Carrie Moyer recounted her own experience of being asymptomatic with COVID-19 and her experience of caring for her wife, textile artist Sheila Pepe, who contracted the virus in the spring. Their collaborative art exhibition Tabernacles for Trying Times—which centered social justice, reconciliation, and human cooperation—closed to the public due to the pandemic in March 2020, the “sadness and irony” of which struck Moyer strongly. Pepe narrated the unspooling of time and thought following her illness, as well as new consolations and rhythms she found in lockdown. Miami-based painter Arturo Rodriguez delved into the liberating power of routine, as his caretaking schedule for his sister and mother has given him “permission” to open his mind to new paths in his work. San Francisco-based artist and arts teacher Nancy Hom described creating a “perpetual mandala” honoring victims of COVID-19 that has evolved to include other recently deceased individuals whose “names have been entrusted to me by people that I know.” Wendy Red Star, a multimedia artist based in Portland, Oregon, expressed her fears for the future of the Crow and Navajo nations and the dangers facing their elders from unmitigated viral spread and the immeasurable threat of lost heritage.
Interviewees frequently mentioned changing studio conditions, fabrication schedules, and artistic content. DEMI, a Miami-based painter, discussed her embrace of large-scale pictures as a means of grappling with the “larger than life” challenges of the coronavirus. New York City-based artist, architect, and filmmaker Alfredo Jaar chronicled his rediscovery of silence, slowness, and solitude in quarantine and their respective benefits. Since travel has ceased, Jaar has found himself watching the world through digital mediation: “I’m still a witness, but a frustrated witness and a limited witness.” Testifying to the power of attention and technique in challenging times, Allana Clarke, an interdisciplinary artist currently residing in New Haven, Connecticut, walked through her work’s rehabilitation of dangerous, racist beauty norms—“these processes and rituals of care that, for me, were very destructive and traumatic”—and how she is now “reorienting those gestures to serve in my healing, to make myself whole again.”
While 2020 often feels disconnected from time, many participants delved into historical precedents that have converged and flared. Retired San Francisco public health worker, photographer, and activist Lenore Chinn recounted the corrosive dangers of misinformation about AIDS in the 1980s and the importance of solidarity in opposition to intolerance, noting of our current pandemic, “the tragic part is it’s invisible. . . . Unless you are working in a health care environment where you’re confronting it day to day, or you have somebody in your personal life who has been impacted . . . you don’t see it.” Chinn’s reflections echo sentiments expressed in the narratives of other artists who lived through the height of the AIDS epidemic, which were captured by the Archives’ 2015 oral history project supported by the Keith Haring Foundation. Kay WalkingStick, a landscape painter based in Easton, Pennsylvania, considered how conditions and rights for women and Native Americans have improved in some ways in recent decades, but also that many oversights and abuses have not stopped. Acknowledging COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on BIPOC populations in the US, Oklahoma City-based multidisciplinary artist Edgar Heap of Birds called attention to his recent work addressing the health crises that Indigenous Americans have experienced “since the contact—since Columbus came.” In Los Angeles, interdisciplinary performance artist Nao Bustamante linked this moment to the Situationists’ desire to embed art in every aspect of life. For her, art is an enduring tool for not only comfort and escapism, but also political traction and communal awareness: “Having been an artist for thirty years, from my perspective, the art world doesn’t look that different than when I first started making art.”
The potential for transformation through introspection glimmers in many of the interviews. Speaking at the height of the record-breaking California wildfires that burned more than four million acres in 2020, Los Angeles-based installation artist Lita Albuquerque asserted that “the light has come in and is expressing itself,” illuminating a “fulcrum year” ripe for self-reflection and edification. Heap of Birds noted gradual progress in societal efforts toward greater “equity, sensitivity . . . racial inclusion,” citing the name change of the Washington, DC, football team and the selection of Kamala Harris as Joseph Biden’s vice presidential running mate as examples of positive growth from extended dialogue. Speaking from her car in Los Angeles, interdisciplinary artist Gala Porras-Kim posited 2020 as a time to critique convention and reimagine art’s future. Thinking ahead, she hoped that the Archives’ interviews would prove to be fertile nodes for future researchers to examine which artistic ambitions were realized, stifled, or respun in the wake of the pandemic.
In addition to artists, we also spoke to leaders from museums and organizations, including Mary Ceruti, executive director of the Walker Art Center; Rita Gonzalez, curator of contemporary art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; and Deana Haggag, president and CEO of United States Artists. While artists gave voice to the changes in their lives and work, these cultural leaders recounted the widespread decimation of institutional finances and their rapid responses to 2020 events. One of the architects of Artist Relief, Haggag said that coalition building is key for continued survival, while Alessandra Moctezuma, professor and gallery director at San Diego Mesa College, reported on digital innovations already implemented by her institution and on the horizon. Artforum editor-in-chief David Velasco told us that dire circumstances highlight the necessity of editorial media, “because you want to actually be able to participate in these conversations in meaningful ways.”
Despite the often dark subject matter, some interviews contain moments of levity. You can watch painter Billy Al Bengston unbox a wax replica of his head in Pasadena, California, or witness New York City-based artist Judith Bernstein enthusiastically recount the bawdy titles of various drawing and painting series. These moments are often suffused with poignancy, such as Santa Fe-based interdisciplinary artist Cannupa Hanska Luger’s striking response to the question, “What would you say to artists 100 years from now?” “Well,” he laughed, “there was a place called America, I want to start with that.”
When the project was first conceived, we had hoped that the pandemic would be under control in the US by the late fall of 2020. But as textile pioneer Sheila Hicks so sagely observed from Paris in July, “[the pandemic] is a ship that’s been pushed out to sea, but it doesn’t have a port.” We hope to follow her advice—to “learn to swim.” Today the interviews appear fully captioned on the Archives’ YouTube Channel and on our website. Together they form a chorus of despair and resilience, loss and creation. We hope the testimonies of these artistic leaders and luminaries convey the interconnectedness and vibrancy of the art world in 2020.
This essay was originally published in the Spring 2021 issue (vol. 60, no. 1) of the Archives of American Art Journal.