Back in March, when the pandemic forced the Winnipeg Art Gallery to close its doors for the first time, director and CEO Stephen Borys put on his tour-guide hat.
Throughout the closure, Borys took to the WAG’s website to post selections of his "daily art," 120 words inspired by the gallery’s diverse archive. His first post was about the German artist Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Portrait of a Lady — featuring a woman gazing outward with intensity and gentleness.
"A little comfort in these difficult times," Borys wrote.
That’s ultimately what the gallery, and other visual arts venues around the globe, have been trying to provide throughout the pandemic, and really, what they try to provide at all other times, too.
"But what quickly happened was, other people were sharing with me their thoughts and ideas, or posing their questions (on social media) about the piece or the artist that I learned the most from," Borys says, shortly after the gallery closed again this fall. "As much as it was, for me, a way to appreciate objects from afar, I got to appreciate other people’s perspectives on what art is to them and what the museum is to them."
It’s no secret Borys wishes the gallery could safely be open, but series like daily art — which featured work by local artists such as Rosalie Favell and Cliff Eyland, along with international artists — and the WAG@Home program have revealed the short- and long-term futures for galleries will and should not require physical attendance to experience the art inside their walls.
That became apparent in the comments section under Borys’s first post. "As a rural member of the WAG, I don’t get to visit the galleries often," wrote Larry Danielson. "But during this time of pandemic closures and social isolation, I look forward to the uplift of your art reflections and visual interpretations."
Others shared the sentiment: the WAG@Home content, like workshops and behind-the-scenes looks at the gallery, was well received, increasing online engagement for the museum and leading to substantial growth on social media channels.
Borys says the gallery couldn’t have known for sure whether a second lockdown would come."What we did know is whatever money we invest in technology and accessibility in the virtual components, they’ll probably be useful for the long-term," he says.
"For a lot of people, the WAG is not just a physical space, but an idea or a way to connect," he says. "Those months in the early months of the pandemic expedited things we’d already wanted to do."
In the digital realm, the gallery experience is obviously different, but that isn’t entirely a bad thing: for institutions around the world, it opens the doors, so to speak, to an audience that might otherwise never visit, and reduces barriers that might prevent them from ever considering attending in person, like accessibility, affordability or remote location. You can also enjoy the art without ever feeling rushed by someone next to you waiting their turn.
For the WAG, popular programming has included artist talks and DIY projects, and later in the winter, the long-awaited Qaumajuq Inuit art centre will launch through a largely virtual, year-long opening event.
The centre’s building is "98 per cent" complete, Borys says, but early on, the WAG team realized there was no point in planning for a physical opening when it might need to be online.
So regardless of restrictions, the centre will "open" in February, with options for in-person events tentatively being plotted out.
"We’re working with a production crew to put together a 60-minute opening, some live, some taped, that anyone can access," Borys said. "So that is kind of nice, in terms of cultural democracy. Everyone can join in on the opening."
What in the past might have been an exclusive event is instead visitable from a sofa.
"Galleries and museums are still sort of elitist structures, and there are a lot of people in our city who don’t feel comfortable walking in or have never felt they see themselves here or that they would want to be here, and that’s our loss," Borys says.
"But I think with an opening like this, it’s literally a click on a button, and there you are, as live as we can be."
Borys temporarily restarted daily art posts earlier this month, sharing Linda, a two-metre high statue of a woman standing up and looking forward, sculpted during the Depression by Toronto artist Elizabeth Wyn Wood. The piece showed great resolve — something Borys says is important right now.
For now, his focus is on Quamajuq, but he doesn’t rule out more posts down the line.
"The reason I kept going in the spring was that I was being encouraged and inspired," he says. "Frankly, right now, I could use a real shot in the arm, and it could end up making us feel better. I feel we have a lot to share, and I want to regain some of that momentum.
"It’s on my agenda to get the energy to start that again."
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.