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Blissfully alone at the pandemic museum

A first-person account of the Chazen and MMoCA’s ongoing, socially distanced exhibitions.

A first-person account of the Chazen and MMoCA’s ongoing, socially distanced exhibitions.

This is our newsletter-first column, Microtones. It runs on the site on Fridays, but you can get it in your inbox on Thursdays by signing up for our email newsletter.

As artworks go, I’m not sure Sam Gilliam’s “Eiler Blues” was created to make one’s heart race with joy. It’s interesting and appealing, to be sure, with its splashes of color on a huge, draping canvas. But was it designed to make a viewer want to do a cartwheel and scream, “Yes!”?

On this day it was. That’s because I had stepped inside the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art shortly after it reopened on March 12. As “Eiler Blues” hangs right in the lobby, it was the first piece of art I had seen in person in way, way too long. The happiness that rose within me was not unlike what I’ve felt when I see loved ones I have missed so much.

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The pandemic has taken many things from us in the past year, and one of them is the ability to be around beautiful things. To be around art.

Yes, museums have been closed but those aren’t the only places where art is displayed. We can’t see art in libraries, in hospitals, in office buildings, in educational buildings, in coffee shops. You can make an argument that art is all around us; it is, and it flourished on murals downtown last summer

Sometimes, though, I just want to see my friends Jacob Lawrence, Mark Rothko, Helen Frankenthaler, Kara Walker or Su Xinping. And now at MMoCA and the Chazen Museum of Art, I can.

The irony of some museums being closed or restricted during the pandemic is that for many people, myself included, the notion of being in an art museum that limits the number of people in it and forces social distancing is a dream. These aren’t restrictions—they’re perks.

I generally don’t want to go to a museum with anyone else, and I certainly don’t want to be around other people when I’m there. I don’t want to hear some know-it-all trying to explain the art to their disinterested companion and I don’t want to engage with a stranger trying to talk to me about the banality of Jeff Koons’ vacuum cleaners.

But to wander a museum almost alone … that is my idea of heaven. If I am ever dying and get some adult version of Make-A-Wish, I want the Sistine Chapel all to myself. Maybe I’ll let some friends come with me if they promise to not talk and stay at least six feet away from me.

I did get one burst of artful joy in the pandemic year. In October I was in Des Moines and went to the phenomenal Des Moines Art Center, which was open with timed visits. I felt very safe there, even in a land where Gov. Kim Reynolds’ approach to the pandemic has been, essentially, daring people not to die. Beyond that, my main interaction with art has been following an Edward Hopper account on Twitter and resisting the urge to retweet every one of the images of sad, lonely, isolated people with the word “MOOD.”

So I knew, given the chance, I would feel safe in a museum. And I did. The Chazen, which reopened at the end of January, has timed 45-minute visits for 20 reservations and five drop-ins. (I’d suggest heading upstairs first because most people go straight to the beautiful Suzanne Caporael exhibit.) MMoCA doesn’t require reservations but does keep track of how many people are there.

I plan to return. Again. Often. Particularly when the rest of the Chazen reopens or new exhibits come in. I suppose it would be too much to ask the museums to keep their pandemic restrictions in place for all eternity, but one can dream.

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