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As Art Schools Cancel Student Shows, One Instagram Account Pledges to Give Them Life

Social Distance Gallery's Instagram page.
Social Distance Gallery’s Instagram page.

Jane Tardo received the call last Friday, March 13, while resting after installing her solo M.F.A. thesis exhibition at the University of New Orleans’s St. Claude Gallery. A professor informed her that major galleries in the neighborhood were canceling their openings due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Tardo’s exhibition, which features a playable, quilted racetrack, was set to open the next day. Recognizing the risks of inviting people to experience this hands-on, gamelike work (delightfully titled Snake Tube Adventure Racing), she made the difficult decision to cancel the opening for the show as well as its regular viewing hours.

“It’s crushing,” Tardo told ARTnews in an email. “I feel like I’m mourning. The weight of lost opportunities is very heavy. I imagine so many emerging student artists, musicians, film/theatre, etc. are feeling a lot of this, too. It’s not only a relief to finish a three-year M.F.A. program and to show off your work, but it’s also your moment to feel proud and to be celebrated for your accomplishments.”

As the novel coronavirus spreads through all 50 states, university life has been disrupted at all levels, with low-income and international students hit hardest. Hundreds of thousands of students have left campuses, classes have moved online, and at some schools, B.F.A. and M.F.A. exhibitions—seen as the culmination of art students’ education—are being canceled. The fast-developing news has left young artists, many of whom will graduate in May (some sans ceremony), feeling frustrated, confused, and helpless in an unprecedented moment.

Now, many are finding some solace in a new Instagram account that is soliciting and posting artworks from B.F.A. and M.F.A. thesis shows amid the coronavirus pandemic. @SocialDistanceGallery was launched on Friday by painter Benjamin Cook to give students an alternative space to exhibit their work; as of press time, it has more than 15,000 followers.

An adjunct professor at the Art Academy of Cincinnati in Ohio, Cook decided to create the account after the school set limitations on the number of visitors its students can invite to their shows. Tardo’s installation was the account’s inaugural post, followed by artists enrolled in schools such as the University of Tulsa, Boston Conservatory, and Duke University.

“The general concern [of students] everywhere is that they wasted their time,” Cook said. “They’ve put four years of work in and, over the past couple months, feeling like it was so close and getting really excited, are having it fall apart at the last minute to something they had no control over.”

In an age when so much art is already being consumed through Instagram, @SocialDistanceGallery is a logical alternative to physical shows. Like many resources born in response to Covid-19, it is also a scrappy and fast-adapting one. Cook currently runs it alone and is anticipating more cancellations. (Cook said he is starting to feel overwhelmed. Thankfully, strangers have volunteered to help with the labor.) To streamline his process, he’s asked classes of students to submit together; he then gradually publishes exhibitions, turning each post into a mini solo show. “Part of this is trying to figure out what an art show means in a time when some of the worries are much larger,” he said. “But I’m hoping this can at least help take people’s mind off things and help build communities and networks.”

The account has already brought some showcased artists consolation. “It’s amazing compensation to connect with so many delightful, talented emerging artists from all around the world,” Tardo said. “The support has been pouring into my otherwise sleepy Instagram. It has been so uplifting and motivating.”

Cook will be running the account for “the foreseeable future”—probably months, he said. Since the start of this week alone, schools that have canceled or suspended their B.F.A. and M.F.A. exhibitions (in addition to many other events) include Pratt Institute in New York and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, both of which rank among the top art schools in the country. These schools have closed facilities for nonessential operations; SAIC, which opened the largest B.F.A. show in its 154-year history last Friday, is also closing residence halls on March 22.

Students are struggling to process all the updates. “Everyone was taken aback by how abruptly things have ended, but we all know that staying isolated right now is important,” said Jonathan Azarpad, a graduating senior at SAIC.

“Most likely, I will not see most of my teachers or classmates IRL ever again,” said Mia Margita Neumann, a fellow SAIC B.F.A. candidate. “As an art student, I’ve lost an incredibly valuable resource to cultivate a network of artists. As a graduating senior, I’ve lost countless connections and future job opportunities by being forced out of a community of my peers in this isolated and somber way. As a person, I’ve lost the opportunity for closure, and it’s heartbreaking.”

They continued, “Now we are all scrambling to see what we can conceivably recover from this inadequate semester—which many of us have already paid for. We are young, and we are resilient, but those who were set to graduate have been pushed off the ledge with no net beneath us.”

Like many of their classmates, Neumann has been following @SocialDistanceGallery and sharing their experience over the last week with Cook. While he has not been posting these stories publicly, he has taken each private message to heart.

“Students are reaching out and sounding really excited about this project, and that has done a lot to keep me going,” Cook said. “There’s a lot no one was prepared for, and it’s going to be a lot of experimentation. I hope this will take some things off people’s plates so we can focus on the education side of things because the school year is really not over. We have to figure out so much more.”

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