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As visual art spaces reopen amid a coronavirus pandemic, many find online viewings are here to stay

When Intuit, a visual arts museum in River West dedicated to intuitive and outsider art, closed in March, the staff focused immediately on fundraising and online content. The museum started a blog and new programming. Ultimately, the efforts were a success.

"It was tumultuous," said Debra Kerr , the executive director at Intuit. "But we took the time to think carefully. Whatever we started we wanted to stick."

With small physical spaces and limited staff, galleries and museums are finding inventive ways to reach patrons, like at Carrie Secrist Gallery, which posts photos of their exhibits online. "Instead of just showing artwork and this is what they're made out of and this is how big they are, we kind of create an environment where we shot from the artist's studio from their garden," said Britton Bertran, the director of the gallery. "For every exhibition we do, we also ask our artists to do a webinar. These online viewing rooms are a neat idea to engage with the public."

Performance art venues, like Elastic Arts in Logan Square, have also adapted. Before closing in March, the venue hosted around four to seven shows with artists or musicians in a given week. Currently, they stream around one show a week.

Adam Zanolini , the Executive Director at Elastic Arts, said pivoting to streaming has been a learning curve for the staff and performers. When visiting in-person, the venue has no stage, so shows can happen in any part of the space. Online, artists and musicians aren't able to get the same feedback from the audience as in an in-person show. "I think for a lot of artists that perform here, it's all about performing to an audience and breaking that fourth wall," said Zanolini.

But Zanolini said streaming online has had some perks. Elastic Arts can record performances and replay shows for new audiences. "Artists can leave the documenting as an afterthought. It creates an archive," said Zanolini.

At Intuit, artists also have livestreams where they present their work. When one of the museum's teen artists exhibited his art on Instagram Live, Kerr said the experience was incredible and emotional. "I was smiling from ear to ear and crying at the same time," said Kerr. "He said in the end, he got more people to attend than he ever thought would."

Some art galleries are still getting used to exhibiting art online. West Town's ARC Gallery has only streamed a fundraiser so far, but treasurer Nancy Fritz said the potential benefit is clear. "Our mailing list is like between three and four thousand people. That's a lot more than the number of folks you get an opening. Theoretically, you have the chance to have your work viewed by a lot of different people," said Fritz.

As places begin to reopen, limited space and reduced hours mean the experience for visitors in-person is different from before. At Carrie Secrist Gallery, people can view art by appointment for around 30 minutes at a time. "It's a chance for them to have one on one engagement with our staff and talk about the art in a really deep and meaningful way," Bertran said. "So it's very intimate."

Gallery associate Colin Jesse cleans a desk at the Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, Aug. 16, 2020 in Chicago. (Armando L. Sanchez / Chicago Tribune)

Intuit reopened on August 7, with only five people allowed in the museum at a time. The museum has reorganized the space, so visitors have a one-way path through the museum for socially distant entering and exiting. With no word on when crowds will be able to flood visual art venues again, Kerr said online programming will be a new permanent fixture for the museum. "We're going to continue to provide this. This has really given us the kick in the pants to invest our time into online programming."


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