The Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution is pleased to announce the launch of the Pandemic Oral History Project, a series of 85 newly conducted interviews of American artists and art world figures living and working through the seismic events of 2020. Adding to the world’s largest collection of oral histories related to American art and advancing the Archives’ long-standing tradition of collecting and preserving firsthand accounts, the Pandemic Project interviews were intended to create a permanent record of this extraordinary moment as it unfolded in real time. This dedicated collection gives voice to the arts community during one of the most turbulent periods in modern history, a time in which many cultural institutions have been forced to temporarily or permanently close, radically reshaping relationships between artists and the public.
Over the course of 12 weeks, from June to September 2020, the Archives recorded over 30 hours of Zoom video and audio interviews, each approximately 20 minutes in length. While oral histories have traditionally been recorded in person, this new format provides a surprisingly intimate experience akin to being one-on-one with an artist in their home or studio. Fourteen interviews will be initially released and appear fully captioned on the Archives’ YouTube channel with a dedicated project page on its website. The remainder will be made available in batches between December 2020 and February 2021.
“This project has given us an opportunity to act in the moment, using a communication platform that is of the moment—Zoom—to create a significant historical record of this unprecedented time. We are grateful to all who participated and honored to preserve their reflections.” —Liza Kirwin, interim director, Archive of American Art
By creating a space for narrators to share their experiences, these oral histories document the cascading consequences of public health, financial, and social crises in the American art world and abroad. While engaging and cathartic, these personal accounts will serve as a powerful primary source for anyone investigating the collective and individual challenges of art and life in the era of COVID-19, as well as the insurgence of deadly violence against Black people and this country’s reckoning with racism.
Accounts range from grief in quarantine and the burden of serial mourning in an extended crisis, to the continuity or unspooling of history during tumultuous times, to the potential for self-nourishment from prolonged introspection. With eyes to the future, many participants spoke of the need for sustainable social cooperation that can outlast the shifting grounds of this year. As travel has been largely canceled, other narrators described their changing sense of home and newfound roots. The existential uncertainties that face educational and cultural institutions, as well as the rapid transition to remote learning, have presented new challenges, prompting adaptation and fear of what knowledge may be lost. When asked to consider the legacy of 2020, some spoke of solidarity, others of resilience and hope, and still others described the profound hollowness that follows immeasurable loss.
“Welcoming vulnerability in such a short format was the challenge and reward of this project—oral history is incredibly powerful even when we’re isolated because it invites us to open up to one another, to listen closely, and to fully engage. When we’re far apart, we need to work harder to be and feel heard.” —Ben Gillespie, oral historian, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution
In selecting participants, the Archives’ curatorial team and interviewers focused on diverse voices and varied perspectives in the visual arts. More than 50% of the oral histories are with women, approximately 70% feature BIPOC narrators, including roughly 10% Asian American, 10% Native American, 12% Black, 40% Latinx, and more than 10% identify as LGBTQ+. The first round of interviews to be released include:
Jessie Benton, daughter of artist Thomas Hart Benton
Ed Bereal, artist
Mark Bradford, artist
Lenore Chinn, artist and activist
Allana Clark, artist
Deana Haggag, president and chief executive officer, United States Artists
Cannupa Hanska Luger, artist
Cadex Herrera, artist
Sheila Hicks, artist
Alfredo Jaar, artist and architect
Alessandra Moctezuma, artist, curator, professor, and gallery director, San Diego Mesa College
Wendy Red Star, artist
Krzysztof Wodiczko, artist
The Archives’ oral historian Ben Gillespie led a diverse group of interviewers, including the following members of the Archives’ curatorial team and external collaborators:
Josh T. Franco, national collector, Archives of American Art
Jacob Proctor, Gilbert and Ann Kinney New York Collector, Archives of American Art
Matthew Simms, Gerald and Bente Buck West Coast Collector, Archives of America Art
Nyssa Chow, lecturer and Princeton Arts Fellow, Lewis Center for the Arts and co-Director, NYC COVID-19 Oral History, Narrative and Memory Archive, Columbia University/INCITE
Lara Evans, associate professor of art history, Institute of American Indian Arts
Fernanda Espinosa, oral historian and cultural organizer
Melissa Ho, curator of 20th-century art, Smithsonian American Art Museum
While the Pandemic Oral History Project captures a chorus of resilience and despair, of creation and loss in the testimony of disparate artists, leaders, and luminaries, it ultimately reveals our interconnectedness and the vibrancy of the American art world in 2020.
Thirty-four interviews received federal support from the Latino Initiatives Pool, administered by the Smithsonian Latino Center. Additional support provided by private donations.