Of all the abrupt changes that happened in New York at the start of the pandemic, the closing of art museums was one of the most disorienting. Like movie theaters, restaurants, and performance venues, they’re a source of both inspiration and shelter for New Yorkers and tourists, and their shuttering was a clear indication that something was deeply wrong. Many months later, they’re beginning to reopen (albeit with new reservation systems and various social distancing requirements). It’s a moment that means a lot—that New York is on the mend, and that residents and visitors who’ve sacrificed so much this year are safe to reunite with the art that makes the city what it is. Photographer Jasmine Clarke visited a few newly reopened museums to talk to some of the first people in the doors.
At The Whitney
What’s your favorite thing you’ve seen so far today?
The Jacob Lawrence paintings. The colors immediately made me like them—they’re really dark and moody. And the direct narrative of the painting is telling a story about history that’s really important.
How did you get your fill of art while museums were closed?
I was fortunate enough to be living with a bunch of artists as my roommates, so we just made stuff together.
What kind of stuff did you make?
We made a video that was a fake beauty, hair commercial. We made a lot of bread. We made a lot of food. We had tea parties. Just with each other.
Did you dress up?
Yes. I like that we have these video cameras in our pockets right now. It feels very natural to just want to capture and document things that are of interest. And then think about later, like maybe what it means or what you can do with the pieces.
Do you get dressed in any particular way to go to the museum?
No. I dress extra all the time.
When’s the last time you went to a museum?
Two weeks ago. I went to the new exhibit at the Met.
What’d you think of it?
It was good. I’m excited for the museums opening up because they had six months to come up with new shit. I’m curious to see what they do.
How did you get your arts and culture kick while museums were closed during quarantine?
I was doing a lot of stuff on YouTube. The MoMA has a lot of really cool YouTube videos going through their catalogs. When it was deep lockdown, I was doing a lot of that.
When’s the last time you were at a museum?
I went to the Met with my mom for her birthday last weekend
Oh, nice. How was it?
It was definitely weird. I felt like it was a little bit like being on a farm or something. In terms of like, being chosen, being forced to see certain things at certain times, in certain ways, but it was cute because it was her birthday.
What’s a piece that you’ve really enjoyed today?
Nothing yet. I think we’re going to look for something downstairs. But last time I was here, it was for the Biennial. That was a really good show.
And I felt this [exhibit] is not. It’s hard to compare one lady’s work to the work of like 25 or 30 artists of color.
Are there any pieces here today that you’ve enjoyed?
I like the Andy Warhol one about rhinoplasties, about nose jobs.
What do you like about the Andy Warhol piece?
You know, I’ve never seen a painting about plastic surgery. And I was reading the side notes about it—for him, it was a lot deeper than that because he didn’t like his own nose, and what it meant for his ethnicity and things like that. I felt like that was really important about it.
What did you look at for arts and culture appreciation during lockdown?
Instagram. Like almost everyone. Instagram.
What did you look at? What did you like?
Man. I mean, before all of the George Floyd stuff, I feel like I was looking at a lot of designs, and people who make clothing, like designers. Their process, their inspiration. And then earlier on, I was watching a lot of short films about the artistic process.
Do you have a creative outlet?
I have a podcast.
What’s your podcast about?
It’s a culture podcast called J by Day. I started it during quarantine, actually. And it was really about everything. Quarantine radio, Tiger King, losing work and all of those things that was happening. Moving to New York City.
But this season that I just started doing, at the end of August, it’s kind of the embodiment of Black Lives Matter. A lot of people asked me to speak on it. So now I’ve been interviewing a lot of either small business owners, artists, writers, who are people of color—whether they’re Asian or black or whatever. To highlight them as people, rather than as being whatever race they are. So that’s what this season is about.
At the Brooklyn Museum
So, when’s the last time you were at a museum?
I actually did go to the Met last week, but before that it was spring break, right before the quarantine hit. I went to Montreal with my brother, and I went to a natural history museum at McGill University. I just looked at dinosaurs.
What do you think about this exhibit?
I find it really incredible. I think this has been my favorite thing I’ve seen so far.
What do you like about it?
It’s such an impactful way to show indigenous art through a modern lens. The way the exhibit is actually put together, everything is connected. Like all of the clothing [pieces] are near each other—you can’t really tell what was made last year and what was made 150 years ago. I think that’s pretty powerful.
What did you do for amusement while museums were closed down?
I’ve been reading a lot of Russian literature, actually, and getting really into Russian poetry, like Anna Akhmatova and [Osip] Mandelstam. I’ve been writing poetry, and I self-published a poetry book. That was a big thing.
It’s called Boundless Translation. My twin brother Leo did all the illustrations. So every poem is illustrated. A lot of it’s about quarantine, I guess, and the experience of leaving college and stuff.
Have you felt yourself drawn to any particular medium more recently?
I have an incredible desire to see theater. I love acting and doing theater and writing theater, but honestly, I just love seeing theater. Obviously we don’t know how the world will progress, but theater has to happen. So I’m excited to see that.
Is there a specific exhibit that brought you here today?
Glynn: Not really. Just like, “Oh, museums are open.”
How would you get your arts and culture kick while museums were closed or in quarantine?
Glynn: We created a strip club. I’m a DJ, she’s the ignition dancer, pole dancer, everything.
Sunni: I’m a stripper and she’s a DJ. The clubs were closed and we needed to make money. And it was before we had gotten unemployment—so we were like, how are we going to survive? Virtual strip club. It just made sense.
What kind of art do you feel yourself drawn to now?
Sunni: Expressionist pieces.
What do you like about them?
Sunni: I love seeing how in other times in history, when there was a lot going on in the world, we’d either focus our artistic attention into, like, minimalism—or expressionism, on the other end of the spectrum. This piece [“Arthur 1, 2017” by Alex Katz] is really cool because you can see that the artist kind of went with the flow of the brush. It’s so vibrant and so simple.
(On the steps of) The Met
What’s the best thing you’ve seen today?
I go to NYU, and we just read The Iliad—and so I’ve gotten really interested in sculptures of Aphrodite. We went and we saw a bunch of those, took a few pictures.
How’d you like The Iliad?
It was kind of hard to follow, but as we discussed it, I think a lot of the interesting societal structures still are prevalent today.
Do you have a creative outlet or a practice on your own?
I like to write, so I took pictures of a lot of the things in the sculptures today. I’m going to sit down later today and write about it.
What kind of art do you feel yourself drawn to now that we can move a bit more freely?
I’d say sculptures. It’s just so much more fun and enriching in-person.
When was the last time you were at a museum?
January. At the Dallas Museum of Art.
What do you think about this?
I’m low-key a classics nerd. I love ancient Greek and Rome.
This is the place to be then.
I was kind of iffy about coming out to the Met, but I haven’t really been in a public place like this in months.
What do you like about the classics?
It’s so long ago that it kind of feels like another world, another existence. Like we’re so separated from those people and those cultures. And especially because the view of them is really idealized.
Do you feel yourself drawn to any medium now that you can move a bit more freely?
It’s nice to actually see physical sculptures in person, and in a three-dimensional space.
What are you doing here today?
I come here to draw and I try to focus on the meditative aspect of drawing—just drawing a single subject. I like focusing on the sculpture and learning about how to render light and form, and understanding foundational things about drawing.
When did you learn how to draw?
I started drawing 10 years ago and kind of just kept growing with it. It’s a constant learning process. It doesn’t really stop.
What kind of art do you find yourself drawn to, now that we can move a bit more freely?
I think just going back to the render. Staying on the meditative rendering, understanding light and form. I’m working on statues, sculptures. Just me just pushing my understanding of light. Like I said—there’s aspects of it I don’t truly understand yet. It’s like a foundation of brick laying. My foundation’s a little wonky, so I’m going back to try to fix the wonky brick laying. Not because I’m bad, it’s just things I want to really fix and refine, so that way as I build up more layers, it makes it more smooth.
When’s the last time you were at a museum?
Literally yesterday. I haven’t been to a lot of the East Coast, so I’m just taking in a lot of art places. I went to the Isabella Gardner in Boston. And now I’m over here.
Where are you from?
I’m from Idaho.
How are you liking New York?
I love it. I love it here, too. It’s such a different vibe from the West Coast.
Have you seen anything here today that you’ve really enjoyed?
I specifically enjoyed this Egyptian exhibit. I don’t see that much Egyptian art in Idaho. The Greek art is really beautiful, too.
And how did you get your arts and culture kick while museums were closed during quarantine?
It’s only online. You have to follow a lot of [accounts on] Instagram and you have to read articles. You still get up to date, but it’s not the same. This is more of an experience. You will remember this more than something you’d see online.
And do you get dressed in a particular way to go to the museum?
Since I’m visiting, I’m trying to dress better. It’s such a nice place, and everything’s so put together. You want to present yourself nicely.
Can you tell me a bit about what you’re wearing?
I’m wearing these white Docs that are very dirty right now, and this is actually a sparkly silver skirt that I put on for my Halloween costume when I was a moon.
You were a moon for Halloween?
I love that.
What did you think of the exhibit [Stage by Rashid Johnson and Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration]?
I thought it was very moving. I didn’t participate in it, I just wrote about it, too. I was interrogating myself about why I wasn’t participating, which I’m sure is similar to participating. I don’t know. Anyway, it was evocative. And then the exhibit about the art produced by inmates and it’s very moving.
Yeah, Marking Time.
That was very moving. I almost cried reading correspondence between an inmate and an activist artist who just kept badgering this inmate to continue to produce art. And the inmate didn’t want to do it because he didn’t think that he had the capacity to do it. It was just very human, very human connection.
Why do you think you didn’t participate in the stage exhibit?
I was embarrassed. There’s a yellow stage and it has five microphones on it, and you’re supposed to, you can go up and say whatever you want and then the recording will play back. I’m not sure, but I didn’t participate because I didn’t feel like I had anything to say, which I heard someone also say in the museum and because I just felt embarrassed to be occupying oral space in a museum, especially so loudly.
A little bit intimidating. And how did you get your arts and culture kick on quarantine while museums were closed?
Creating art, and I started reading books again and a lot of listening to music.
What were you making?
What did you think of Marking Time?
I thought it was a phenomenal way to reopen the art scene. It’s the best show I’ve seen in years, for sure.
What did you like about it?
It’s a lot of work that doesn’t get seen on this platform typically. There are certain galleries or other representations that will specialize in outsider folk art, but there’s no need to separate the work from that and just to make it art. I think that that’s extremely important and I think not only just looking at the work, but really reading each piece, really changed the visit for me and taking that time. I’m still a little overwhelmed to be honest. Definitely need to come back again.
And did you have a creative outlet while museums were closed during quarantine?
Fortunately, I did. I share a small studio with four other people, but yes, that was an absolute gift during this time because I lost my job and was having trouble paying bills and such, but just being able to see free time as another form of wealth and investment in myself and my work.
What kind of art do you make?
I make installation work similar to some of the styles that were incorporated here. I use a lot of found objects, but also things that were mine growing up or that I find that are the same make, model, color, texture, and also paintings and collages. A little bit of a range.
Do you feel yourself drawn to any medium in particular now that we can move a bit more freely?
I definitely was a little bit more cautious of picking things up off the street and bring them inside. So I’ve started doing that again, but I think since I’m still not working, I am drawn to a practice that is a little bit, that takes more time and can allow for more investment. I’ll always be drawn to material because I think it holds a lot of historical reference for people very personally. Especially domestic objects, things that you grew up around.
When’s the last time you were at a museum?
Wow! I don’t even remember.
And what did you think about Making Time?
I wish I was more surprised hearing some stuff. But everything I read and saw… I don’t know. It made me feel heavy. You know?
And how did you get your arts and culture kick while the museums were closed during quarantine?
I do a little painting myself, actually.
What kind of stuff do you paint?
Mostly pictures that I’ve taken from traveling and stuff. I like to do little landscapes. I was doing this one piece I did in Japan where my husband was sitting down using one of those little showers that they have in ryokans, little Japanese inns.
It was pretty cool.
Nice. And have you felt yourself drawn to any medium more recently?
I wish I had space for a sculpture because when we were walking through here, when we were all discussing our favorite pieces and stuff like that, I was most fascinated with there was the one piece with the mirrored squares telling the story of Parson’s incarceration, all the different documents involved in the case. And I was like, “That’s so cool.” The subject matter, obviously, very good. But the presentation was so moving to be able to walk through it in pieces. I think sculpture art is so much more interactive.