Illustration Denise Nestor.
The 2020–21 issue of Art in America’s Annual Guide, released in December 2020, includes interviews with museum directors about how they responded to the Covid-19 pandemic. Madeleine Grynsztejn of the MCA Chicago spoke about how she accelerated the initiatives of a strategic plan to make the institution more financially sustainable, and more welcoming to—and representative of—its community.
When we shut down in March 2020, we pivoted our programming immediately. We reopened in July with an exhibition called “Just Connect,” featuring works drawn from our collection. The pandemic has made us more aware of our desire to connect, and the show was devoted to our dependence on others for a sense of belonging. The MCA is one of the few museums that has a very active performance program, and we introduced hybrid offerings that happen online with somatic components. In many cases, our digital programs draw a larger, more diverse and global audience than equivalent programs held on-site, with many first-time MCA attendees.
Of our new programming initiatives, perhaps the most important is “The Long Dream,” an exhibition that runs through January 17, 2021, and reflects the moment both in its organization and its content. It features more than seventy Chicago-based artists, working in visual arts, performance, and public practice. Covid-19 exposed just how vulnerable our artist community is. Gigs disappeared overnight, and so did opportunities to show and sell work. We conceived “The Long Dream” as a platform to elevate and celebrate Chicago artists, because it’s imperative that we look to artists’ work and listen to their voices in this time of social change. It’s the most multifaceted exhibition in our history, in terms of mediums and artist demographics, and extraordinarily varied in its interpretation. The labels have been written in collaboration with our incredible Teen Creative Agency, and with community leaders and youth groups across the city. All this has happened since March 2020. It usually takes three years to do a 12,000-square-foot show. We did it in five months.
“The Long Dream” reflects our commitment to equity throughout our institution, both on our walls and in our staffing practices. It is the result of a shared-leadership curatorial model. The show was curated by a team of people, some of whom do not have the word “curator” in their title. Our external programming has long been lauded for diversity and inclusion. We’ve featured women artists at a level of 50 percent since 2015. But we needed to catch up internally. When most institutions were furloughing their front-facing employees, we went in the opposite direction. We converted visitor services from part-time to full-time with benefits, precisely because we recognized this was a vulnerability that we had to address. We invited visitor services staff to work from home, by contributing to the museum’s accessibility initiatives. Staff members were paid their usual wages to write image descriptions for the website, to make it more accessible to low-vision users. We also sped up the development of our staff’s racial equity and museum accessibility chops by having them participate in anti-racism workshops, so that when we came back on-site, this team was even more culturally sensitized and ready to welcome our very diverse audience. Every museum should be looking at an equity mandate. We’re facing one crisis: a crisis of fairness.