SFMOMA Commissions Local Artists, Expands Digital Programs During Shelter-in-Place

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 (Robbie Sweeny)

Part of the allure of the artist residency rests in the opportunity to claim space — an increasingly tenuous resource in art creation. With museums shuttered and physical gatherings halted, programs have turned to digital solutions.

One such transition can be seen at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), where digital commissions have been doled out to local artists. Taking shape as a new “Community in Residence” program, the virtual project turns over the museum’s homepage to six creative collectives to create work in response to the prompt: “What does it mean to work collaboratively in the time of social distancing?”

Retaining control over the site for one week, the artists will create “digital murals,” along with additional resources to shed light on their practice. The program will also feature a “virtual engagement” on the SFMOMA YouTube channel, where the events will stream at 6pm PDT every Thursday for the duration of the residencies.

“Now, more than ever, it is crucial for the museum to continue to support local creatives and explore the ways that art can bring us together during challenging times,” Chad Coerver, chief education and community engagement officer at SFMOMA, said. “The history of artmaking during past pandemics shows that artists will be vital contributors to the process of imagining our collective future in the wake of the coronavirus. We are excited to see what the collectives create.”

The program launched with the West Oakland-based CTRL+SHFT Collective on May 18. The site holds a short introduction from the cohort, a family-friendly art activity titled “Recipes for Collective Care,” a Q&A with the members and an “exhibition.” In photos embedded on the homepage, the cohort declares that they are “musicians, activists, educators, performers, artists, filmmakers and cultural workers.”


After CTRL+SHFT Collective’s week-long installation, the residency commissions will continue with Nure Collective, whose work goes live May 25. The engagements will stretch throughout the coming weeks, meeting their conclusion June 28 with the close of Bik Van der Pol’s commission.

SFMOMA’s residency program joins a host of digital “museum from home” offerings from the institution. Updated daily, the virtual experience presents viewers with an array of materials from the SFMOMA archives that span creative projects, interviews with artists, studio visits, essays and behind-the-scenes features.

One endearing entry into the catalog is a peek into SFMOMA’s miniature museum — a model-sized replica of the institution’s exhibit spaces. Comprising photographs and videos, the piece reveals paintings shrunk to fit into your palm, maquettes of Louise Bourgeois’ famous spider sculptures (they’re no less eerie in miniature), and even tiny museum-goers.

The collection, carefully presented, connects viewers to the institution while its doors remained locked and its engagements postponed. Shuttered amid the COVID-19 outbreak, the museum has been closed to the public since March 14, forcing the organization to take cost-cutting measures, resulting in furloughs for nearly 200 employees and the termination of 135 on-call staff members. When the layoffs were announced March 27, museum president Neal Benezra stated that the institution projected an over $8 million loss in revenue.

“With no visitors, a decrease in contributions, and the anticipated cancellation or postponement of our art and fundraising activities, we are looking at a revenue loss of over $8 million through the end of our fiscal year (June 30) which reflects an estimated 40 percent drop in our operating revenues since the first effects of the coronavirus,” Benezra stated. “We anticipate significant additional losses to the museum in the year ahead as half of our annual visitors are travelers from outside the Bay Area.”

The effect of the coronavirus and related closures has sent ripples throughout the arts and culture industry, with reports projecting a $6.8 billion loss. Last week, the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art pushed back its anticipated reopen date to mid-August or later, while also stating the cancellation of all tours, talks, concerts and events through the end of 2020.

Though it remains to be seen how “museum from home” efforts might translate to earned revenue, the programs offer a lifeline between institutions and audiences. Beyond exposure, initiatives such as SFMOMA’s “Community in Residence” program stand as a way to provide financial support directly to artists while the museum remains closed to the public.

“The new Community in Residence program awards paid residencies with the museum to local, national and international community centers, nonprofits, publishers, collectives and individuals,” officials said. “This program seeks to collaborate and share space, resources and platforms with socially engaged artists and organizations working both within and beyond the boundaries of art.”

The institution continued: “While the inaugural series will take place online, the program will continue not only digitally but also in the community or onsite in SFMOMA’s Koret Education Center after the museum reopens to the public.”