Curating through Covid
The curator and art writer Maie El-Hage discusses the ups and downs of putting on exhibitions through the pandemic and tells us what she’s learnt from the experience
Her website can be found at https://arthistorianmaie.com/
Photo by Rayan Hajj
With galleries shuttered, exhibitions canceled and travel at a standstill, the difficulties that art industry specialists faced during the Covid-19 pandemic were of seismic proportions, not least because of the uncertainty that characterized so much of 2020 and beyond.
And yet curators and gallerists across the globe rose to the challenge in style, drawing on their resourcefulness to bring us a wonderful mix of shows and talks online and in person when permitted, successfully and safely.
These included three exhibitions curated by the Lebanese curator and art writer Maie El-Hage, which posed different challenges and, therefore, required unique solutions, coming against a backdrop of changing regulations and shifts in public mood. Several of these valuable ‘lessons learned’, were the focus of a webinar titled ‘Curating through the Pandemic’, which Maie delivered to a group of art and design students at the American University in Dubai’s Center for Research, Innovation and Design.
In the talk, she also shared her key takeaways from the experience, which included the importance of having a great team on board and a strong online presence when implementing projects in challenging times. “The ability to think creatively and move swiftly to contingency plans was also critical,” Maie explained.
There was evidence of that ability to pivot and make snap decisions in a fast-changing environment in the first exhibition that Maie curated during the pandemic, which showcased a selection of digital paintings by the Lebanese artist Ralph El-Hajj. Titled ‘An Autobiography as the Universe’, the show opened on March 5, 2020, at the 392Rmeil393 gallery, just days before lockdown forced its closure.
Maie explained that one of the main challenges she and the team faced ahead of the launch and immediately afterward was the wealth of unknowns, including how long the lockdown would last. “After discussions, and with no reopening date on the horizon, we decided that it was only fair to move the show fully online and give Ralph the visibility he and his work deserved,” she said. The contingency plans put in place included holding an Artist Talk via Zoom and making the exhibition available on YouTube, with the artworks filmed and photographed in the gallery space. “We also arranged for the musician and composer Bassem Daouk to create and perform an original piece of music to accompany the video, which undoubtedly gave the online show an added dimension,” she said.
While the end of the first lockdown was welcome news for the art world, it still presented several challenges for curators, who were all too aware of the need to ensure exhibitions offered visitors an experience that was both enjoyable and safe.
Creativity and caution were both high on the agenda when Maie and her team turned their attention to an exhibition of works by the Lebanese artist Wissam Melhem titled ‘Emancipation’, which took place at Art on 56th gallery in June 2020. Fortunately, the venue proved to have many advantages at a time when anti-Covid precautions were essential, including high ceilings, good ventilation and outside space, which the team decided to utilize.
Maie and Ralph El-Hajj, taken at the 392Rmeil393 gallery before the lockdown
“We opted to hold the opening over two days instead of on a single evening and implement a booking system, while also asking visitors to remain outside until their time slot,” she explained. The steps taken, together with broader precautions, such as wearing masks and social distancing, worked well, much to the team’s delight. “People were really enthusiastic about the exhibition and grateful for the work we did to make it possible, saying how much they’d missed attending in-person events.”
Unfortunately, by the time Maie’s third exhibition was scheduled to take place, Lebanon, like much of the world, was back in lockdown, necessitating another contingency plan. A major initiative titled ‘Under the same Sky’ and planned for November 2020, the exhibition featured works by Ralph El-Hajj and the Italian artist duo Antonello Ghezzi (Nadia Antonello and Paolo Ghezzi). Organized in collaboration with the Italian Institute of Culture, the show represented an expression of solidarity with Lebanon following the catastrophic Beirut Port explosion of August 4, 2020.
Maie said one of the plus points when it came to promoting the exhibition was the Italian artists’ longstanding relationship with Lebanon and love for the country, which they described as a second home. “They’d visited Lebanon previously, so had a strong local following, and began posting content promoting the show well ahead of the date, aware that a new lockdown might mean a move online,” she said. “This meant that interest in the show was already high before the opening and decision taken to move it online, even though the artists themselves were unable to attend due to travel restrictions.”
Maie and her team were able to take inspiration from these and other key factors at play in their curation, including the historic setting planned for the show. “We were incredibly fortunate to have the Lebanese University’s Deir el Qamar campus as the location, which is truly beautiful and historically significant,” she said. “In fact, we decided to film the exhibition in the grounds at night under the moon, as well as in the daytime, which tied in beautifully with the broader theme and language.”
Installing the art outdoors in November meant that the canvases had to be made waterproof, before they were then stretched and placed between the trees, and, once complemented by the Italian artists’ flags of the Milky Way, and original music by Bassem Daouk, evoked a wonderful, almost ethereal ambiance. “The setting also helped to reinforce the message that the artists wanted to share – that we’re all under the same sky, wherever we live,” Maie explained.
She added that the positive reaction to the exhibition and high levels of interest it generated highlighted the importance of having a strong virtual presence, enabling curators, gallerists and artists to reach as wide an audience as possible. “Lockdowns prompted many people to invest in websites and high quality social media, and I’m confident this will continue,” she said.
In fact, Maie launched her own website in July - something, she explained, she’d been considering for some time and that has proved to be a sound decision. “The website provides the platform I needed to showcase my writing and curating activities worldwide, but with the added bonuses of a worldwide reach and recognizable brand identity,” she said.
The ‘Under the Same Sky’ exhibition
Photos by Rayan Hajj