Art & Resiliency: Museums in the Age of COVID-19

The Midstory Team chats with Adam Levine, the director of The Toledo Museum of Art, about the future of art and museums, including the role of digital presentation, utilization of outdoor spaces and shifts in artistic expression in times of crisis.

Browse by topic or read the transcript of our interview below.

Topics covered:
[1:52] Adapting to the role of director during the start of the pandemic
[5:08] Technology’s role in strategic and creative planning and future of digital media
[9:22] Rethinking the paradigm of physical and digital programming
[12:53] The Toledo Museum of Art’s (TMA’s) master plan, campus expansion and operation through the backdrop of COVID-19
[15:52] Utilization of and accessibility to outdoor art exhibitions 
[18:30] Limitations and shifts in art form that result from crisis
[22:15] Safety concerns and steps towards reopening

Ruth Chang: Thank you for joining me today on the Midpoint. I’m pleased to welcome the executive director of the Toledo Museum of Art, Adam Levine. He returned to Toledo earlier this year to take on the leadership of the museum right before the effects of COVID-19 hit us in the Midwest. I’m excited to learn more about the role of art, and what creative opportunities may emerge despite these times of constraints. Thank you for joining me on the Midpoint today, Adam.

Adam Levine: Thanks so much for having me, Ruth. 

RC: Yeah, we’re really glad to be able to connect with the museum director and to be able to talk a little bit about the future of art and museums, and what is the future of everything given COVID-19. 

AL: Well, if I knew the answers to that, then I would be doing a lot of other things too, but I’ll do my best. 

RC: Great. Well, we can all project a little bit, imagine together. First of all, how does it feel to be back in Toledo? You were away for a little bit. 

AL: Yeah, so I was in Toledo for six years, previously, in a series of different positions with the museum, including Deputy Director and Curator of Ancient Art before leaving to go to Jacksonville, Florida. Even though, as we were just discussing, I’m originally from New York. Toledo feels like home. Six years, as you know, is a pretty significant portion of my life. My fiance is from here, so this is an intentional decision both to be at the Toledo Museum of Art, which is such an exceptional place, but also to be in Toledo, to raise our family here and to make this place home forever. It’s an amazing community. I know I don’t need to tell you that. So, it feels great, and in spite of the oddness of this moment, I’m beginning to feel settled. 

RC: And so you are now the tenth director of Toledo Museum of Art and one of the youngest, I believe, or maybe the youngest. You were selected earlier this year, and maybe a month after really the pandemic hit. Did you have any initial goals that are now kind of drastically changed, or, how are you adapting? 

AL: That’s a great question. First, one sort of mild corrective, which was Brian Kennedy was the ninth director of the Toledo Museum and departed about a year ago to take on the role of the directorship at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. He was succeeded by John Stanley, who also has a long and distinguished tradition, or history, in Toledo originally. And he did such an extraordinary job helming the ship during that time, including the outset of COVID-19 that the board, sort of, retroactively classified him the tenth director. So, while I was announced as the tenth director, I am in fact the 11th director. In part, because John deserves this rich recognition. Yes, certainly I was announced in January and at that point in Florida we were beginning to track COVID-19 when I was on my previous job, but no one in America thought it was going to have the impact that it had at that point. Over the course of February, I think it became clear that we were grappling with a global pandemic. The effects of which really became clear in March. 

So as that has escalated, of course, so too have expectations around museum closure, handling of that and all of the sequence of activities you can imagine normally accompanies a new director into his or her role, had to be adapted. The short answer to your question is, doing a lot of meetings still with community stakeholders, with museum supporters, with staff; most of it is mediated through a screen, but that also provides you with a different set of opportunities. This medium doesn’t really lend itself to large group meetings, so there are many fewer receptions, but there are a lot more intimate conversations. I would say, while I’ve probably not been able to touch as many people as I might have otherwise, they are huge opportunities to go deeper, and I feel like the quality of the information that these conversations are yielding is incredibly helpful. And that’s, sort of, the final part of the answer to your question, which is the anticipated first 100 days of my tenure was all about listening; having conversations broadly with every level of staff, with every level of volunteer, with every person and community stakeholder that we could get on my schedule to learn as much as I could about this community and try to assimilate that into our eventual strategic plan. While I’m listening over the phone and by Zoom and not in person, the listening has not been interrupted. 

RC: Wow, yes, and certainly as you said the conversation can be much deeper through this kind of mediated screen somehow. Do you picture that these deeper engagements will lead to more creative exhibitions, and will that be happening online for the future of museums? 

AL: That’s another really interesting question. The depth of the conversations, I think, arises from the fact that the nature of remote work requires you to have smaller groups. So, a 30-minute meeting with ten people only has three minutes per person, a 30-minute meeting with five people has six, and so on and so forth. Because the technology, sort of, inhibits group size, you end up having richer conversations. Just to be clear, I would much rather be meeting you in person. With that said, I think the idea here is it is too early to have a strategic plan because the strategic plan needs to be community consulted. That is why we are having these broad conversations to try and put our fingers, as a management team, not just on what TMA should be doing, but also what Toledo needs. The Toledo Museum of Art is an anchor institution in this community, so our highest and best use is engaging art and art history in ways that align with community needs. I do think that the conversations we’re having are going to lend themselves to vibrancy, into relevance in our exhibition schedule. But, I also think that your specific question was around the creativity of exhibitions, and we have a great small team of curators that needs to be grown and augmented, but a really great creative group of curators that are working through the shows that we are putting on. But, yes this broad community consultation will absolutely factor in exhibition decision-making.

 As far as the technology goes, it’s a fascinating question. I think one of the things that COVID-19 has demonstrated across industry is that investment in digital is important if for no other reason than resilience. A lot of the change in management around transitioning to digital was taken care of by necessity and a lot of it’s going to stick around to stay; flexible schedules, working from home. Exhibitions, I think, less so honestly. I think that there are some interesting digital solutions that are out there. I think museums that have invested in digital for a very long time, like the Met, or MoMA or the Tate have really positioned themselves to use their archives and digital platforms well. But, I also think there’s no facsimile if we’re going to an art museum and standing in front of the work of art and the digital experiences are better than nothing, but they’re clunkier than the physical experience. And in moments of newness, this is an experience none of us have ever lived through. It’s very difficult to extrapolate from now into the future. The one thing we do know about humanity looking backwards rather than looking forwards, is people tend to revert back to normative behavior. And as I said, I’m a New Yorker. I was in New York during 9/11 and I remember when everyone said no one will ever fly again after 9/11. And by 2014, there were more people flying than had ever flown before. We are absolutely entering into a phase where we are in a next normal. And until we have a vaccine, we are going to have to think through a very different operating model. But, I think that once people feel comfortable coming back and experiencing exhibitions in person, that is still going to be the modus operandi for museums. It doesn’t mean we don’t have to think about digital outreach and digital packaging, but I still don’t see that being the primary driver of the business model or primary driver for us to have production. I think it’s sort of secondary. 

RC: Yeah, I mean we see a lot of these spontaneous collections of artists, or artists from home or museum from home, those kinds of social media hashtags pop up. And in some ways, those are providing new ways of engaging maybe a sector of the community that might not have been that interested in museums and artworks before. 

AL: I think that’s right. I also think the broader insight that museums, and all other content producers, need to internalize is not, “Oh, we need to leverage this platform.” It is to really understand how people consume on that platform. What is the nature of how… it’s not just about putting things on Instagram, it’s how people engage their content on Instagram. It’s understanding why binging on Netflix is so exciting, it’s so popular, right? Like what is it about that behavior and how do you tap into that? Here, I’ll give you an example, which is just an observation. Museums do a lot of programs and some museums are better than others of recording those programs, and they will have this deep archive of content. We’ve already alluded to some of those museums. And we’ve done a pretty good job of that in Toledo. But, if you think about what you watch on Netflix, you love series. Now think about, museums think about programs as one-offs, but if you were thinking about your program not just as a one-off physical experience, but also something that had a digital life there after, maybe you would want to think about serialized production. You would want programs that are scaffolded, and have story arcs and build on each other. There are of course sort of lecture series that do that, but what would that look like in other arenas of museum programming? I think those are the questions that accrue from this moment, where museums don’t just think about how do you take something and translate it into digital, but how do you produce a brand new set of content that is considerate of the use of the platform you’re trying to distribute on?

RC: What’s interesting that you mentioned is that the museum obviously curates that experience, but also when you’re at home it requires a whole new set of constraints. Maybe those are new constraints that artists of the future might be thinking about, and that requires designing around them. 

AL: I think so, I think that’s right. It’s hard to imagine what the art that comes out of COVID that is enduring will look like, but certainly there are filmmakers and photographers, award-winning internationally renowned ones that have started doing their work on iPhones, so there is democratization of infrastructure, as well. I’m struck by how many early, not quite early, but how many video artists from ten years ago we’re anticipating TikTok. This sort of short attention, very dramatic, incredibly aggressive movements, yet it’ll be really interesting to see where we go from here. 

RC: Shifting gears a little bit from the virtual, the museum obviously has spent a long time thinking about expanding physical space in the neighborhood into the forty acre master plan. Will that vision be shifted? Will that be bolstered? What is the importance of that physical public space on an urban planning scale in the middle of this crisis? 

AL: Sure, great question. So this is certainly the idea that the museum campus, we have already alluded to the museum as an anchor institution, and the museum’s campus is an incredibly strategic set of parcels for Toledo. We are halfway in between Promedica hospital and downtown. We are arguably one end of downtown and a gateway from the Collingwood exit. We are so close to Mercy and connected by just a few blocks from all of the great energy that’s running up and down Adam’s street. Any physical improvements to the museum campus and any contribution to generating energy which pushes towards downtown and helps with the continued revitalization of those corridors, is most welcome. There is uncertainty in the macroeconomic environment, which is undeniable, so that is something that we will be looking closely at. But, as far as the master plan is concerned, at the core of every plan are great principals, are principals and values that the plan seeks to articulate. And a master plan which is an architectural and spatial one, seeks to find physical manifestation of those values. The sequencing and phasing of those projects is something that we’re gonna look at very closely, particularly against the backdrop of COVID, but the principles are things that you should expect us to continue to live out in our programming. There are ambitious building plans articulated in that master site plan, but the core value is to turn the museum campus into a park. That’s something that the block party already gestures towards, and the community should expect to see more of such activities. We’re going to look closely at the master plan and we’re gonna be very intentional about how we sequence any phasing of it, but for now our focus is really on managing through COVID, reopening in a safe way for the community, developing our first strategic plan. And once that is done, really taking a breath and activating those principles, developing use of the campus, observing the use of that campus, and then taking a view of how the master plan might be introduced and implemented thereafter. 

RC: It’s interesting that you mentioned that the campus plan is to make a museum into a park, because parks are one of the only things that are really open now for any kinds of social engagement. And I imagine that one of the principles moving forward for the museum to safely reopen is to provide that kind of space for the public to if not congregate, but to at least enjoy some kind of sense of collectiveness together, to be together. 

AL: Absolutely, you hit the nail on the head, Ruth. The Sculpture Garden is open. Anyone listening or watching this, you can go to the Toledo Museum of Art right now, you can walk around outdoors and you can see world-class works of art in the Sculpture Garden. I would encourage everyone to do so. This is a huge advantage for institutions that have campuses and have outdoor facilities. Some of them have put those facilities behind walls or behind gates, ours is freely available. So come on down and check out our wonderful Mark di Suvero, Blubber⁠—the tire swinging, or the … from the museum out on the Monroe St. and Collingwood intersection, there are some wonderful things to see. And then as far as the campus goes, certainly, the campus will feature in our reopening plans and a lot of data indicates that people feel really comfortable being outdoors even in spite of the stay-at-home order, which is still in effect in Ohio, but as we look forward, we also think it’s important to open the galleries and to open the main building. We feel an obligation to this community. We are Toledo’s Museum of Art. We are a space that is large where social distancing is possible. The reopening will be of a kind, which is different than a normal museum experience, but we know that we can balance our obligation to this community to serve as a respite space, a space to come together, a space to heal some of the psychological trauma of COVID with safety and security of our staff, our volunteers and our visitors. And those two things can be balanced and that we will be working. We are working towards a reopening that will allow anyone to come and visit, and will allow each of those people to feel safe in doing so. 

RC: We know from history that human crises have spurred changes in art, music, culture, society in revolutionary ways. Obviously, tragedies in particular in the world from the wars have led to a lot of depiction, changes, fragmentation in art that we can see. Do you think that we will see a similar shift after the global crisis like COVID-19, or would that influence the way that the institution chooses exhibitions to show to the public? 

AL: I think there is an ongoing conversation about the nature of exhibitions going forward because there is a lot of uncertainty around transportation, in particular, as a consequence of COVID. So I do think there is a very real effect on the operational realities with doing exhibitions. And with any group of creative people, when you give them constraints they come up with really creative solutions within those constraints. I think some of the changes related to exhibitions will be content-related, which is sort of more your question, but I also wouldn’t discount how people will respond to new constraints introduced by travel restrictions. But, to answer the specific intent of the question, undoubtedly there will be changes. Undoubtedly there will be changes, but I don’t know that we can forecast exactly how, because we don’t know what the long-term effects of COVID will be. I’ll go back to an example I used earlier, let’s take 9/11. The trauma of that day resulted in some really wonderful works of art that responded to that day. I think of, say, Spencer Finch’s installation at the 9/11 Memorial Museum that has this almost mosaic of different blues that represent all the colors of the sky on 9/11. It’s a magnificent thing. There will be poignant works of art that respond to the immediate human toll that COVID-19 has taken. But, I’m sure you’re following, as many of your listeners and viewers are, the interesting artworks that are being made around data and privacy. I’m not sure that on the 12th of September anyone would have said that the ongoing effect of 9/11 on all of our daily lives would have been data privacy. As a consequence of government intrusion, etc., and access to which data sets and AI, it spawned a whole body of digital art that you can draw a direct line back to 9/11. But, who on the 12th, or the 13th or the 14th of September would have said, that is going to be the artistic legacy. The lingering effect on artistic legacy of this horrible day. There will undoubtedly be an effect because artists are responsive to social reality and there will be changes to social fabric that accrue because of COVID-19. But, it’s beyond me to be able to forecast what those will be. 

RC: Right, but there is some kind of artistic resiliency that we’re all anticipating regardless of what may come. 

AL: I think so. 

RC:I think that we’re all really eager to find a way back, and to safely, let’s say, but also still in a sense of togetherness, visit the museum. What might the future museum goer expect for, in terms of like safety and what are some of the protocols that you guys are just contemplating now for the reopening?

AL: All of our reopening protocols are going to be in alignment with local, state, federal guidelines and the relevant agencies, the CDC, OSHA, etc. and I preface my answer with that because we’re awaiting guidance from the governor on when we can open. The prerequisite for being able to open is the governor of Ohio saying it’s okay to open. So, when we are approved to open, we will announce all of these things publicly and we will announce holistically rather than piecemeal how we are working to keep our visitors safe. What I can share with you today is that in addition to what we’re doing, our internal expertise, and we have a considerable amount of operational expertise, including, incidentally, an environmental health and safety operations. We are going the extra mile to consult with external expertise to make sure that everything, every box has been checked and that no stone has been left unturned. To give, but one example, I don’t know of an office space which isn’t rearranging furniture, putting in plexi-glass barriers, doing all the things required to keep office workers socially distant and safe from COVID. But, we are also working with infectious disease experts to come in and help us make those layouts. So, we are not just making our best guesses. We are bringing in the actual experts who do this within healthcare systems to do it with us, as well. That is the commitment we can make. We exist for the public trust and we take our responsibility very seriously, so when we say it is safe to reopen it is going to be because we have done every work of, every piece of diligence possible to make sure that your safety and the safety of the people you come to the museum with is being looked after. 

RC: I think that as one of the only and the most quality and free public space and one of the world’s renowned art museums, I think we’re extremely lucky to be able to have the Museum of Art here and to be able to access it as a public. Everything that you’re doing is really with the entire community in mind. I believe that we hope that as COVID-19 and the crisis that comes with all of these … all of the problems that come with the crisis, I believe that there will be this kind of resilience and creativity that issues possibility from the situation. Thank you so much.

AL: I couldn’t agree with you more, thank you. 

RC: Thank you so much for joining me today. I really, really appreciated the conversation, and I believe that in art there is the strength from home and a belief in a shared experience that is a national experience that is unifying in some ways, as well as representative of our daily lives here. Thank you again. 

AL: My pleasure, thanks for having me, and thanks for all you do. 

RC: Thank you so much again for joining us on this episode of the Midpoint. I really enjoyed the conversation with Adam about the emergent opportunities and deep engagements that are possible despite our current limitations in the pandemic. Even if the future still lays uncertain for all of us, we hope that the story that comes out at the end, in history, is one of innovation and resilience. If you like this conversation give us a like, share this episode and subscribe to our weekly newsletter. As always, stay safe, stay healthy, stay human.


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