MUSEUM 2050 Dispatches

Updates from the Art Institute of Chicago

Yi Cao

Just over a month ago, I was relieved to hear that the Japanese prints we lent to museums in Asia last year had arrived safely at the loading dock at the Art Institute of Chicago. For eight months, I had not known when different reopening plans would be implemented at those venues, or when various international travel policies would be synchronized due to the current pandemic. The Art Institute of Chicago closed its doors in early March, and, while quickly and effectively getting employees to work remotely, it was a challenge to deal with the artworks that had been lent around the world at the time. Not unique to the Art Institute of Chicago, this newfound predicament put-to-task how the broader museum field reacted to this unexpected crisis collectively and problem-solved accordingly.

I started my job at the Art Institute of Chicago in early December of last year as the Director of Curatorial Administration for Arts of Asia. As such, I still have colleagues I haven’t met and spaces in the museum that I haven’t been to after seven months of remote working. I’ve already witnessed and weathered several rounds of layoffs and organizational changes caused by the pandemic’s impact on the museum’s finances and priorities. I have found myself constantly shifting my working approaches and strategies through navigating new sets of policies and procedures in my work setting and balancing life beyond my work in this fast-changing world.

The Art Institute’s Asian collection comprises works spanning nearly five millennia and encompassing all of the continent’s major artistic traditions, modern and contemporary Asian art. As with what other museums have started, we have also initiated many virtual programs, such as zoom lectures, blog posts of collection highlights, online bilingual resources, etc. to better connect with our audiences in the United States and Asia. Meanwhile, we felt the urgency to re-evaluate our conceptual framework and started by asking ourselves: What is our purpose, and what is Asian art’s role in a museum amid the current political context? Should we be trying to emphasize the museum’s role as a force for social change in our Arts of Asia galleries? Or, in light of the current and mounting xenophobia towards Asians, should we aim to convey the humanity and humanism of Asian cultures and societies in a historical context? What do the Coronavirus and Post-Coronavirus Asian art displays look like?

One thing is for certain: we can learn a lot from what is happening right now vis-a-vis the escalating xenophobia against Asian communities and the Black Lives Matter social movement and their punctuated effect on our capacity for collective empathy. As a museum administrator and an independent contemporary art curator, I must thoughtfully curate works that “speak truth to power” as it pertains to the subject at hand, commit to mining a narrative that is both honorable in its fidelity to the aches of history and its realtime awareness of our capacities to learn and process difficult local and global topics meaningfully.

About the Author:

Yi Cao is is the Director of Curatorial Administration in the Department of Arts of Asia at The Art Institute of Chicago. She is based in Chicago.

About the Series:

Museum 2050 has always been about bringing people together, through our communities shared passion for museums and researching institutional development. As the world slowly, and carefully starts reopening, we are checking in weekly with various members of our community to share their personal reflections, anecdotes and musings about how they and their institutions have been operating in the face of this pandemic. In these incredibly difficult times for all, we hope that these brief vignettes from around the world bring us closer together, and remind us that even when the world stops and museum doors close, we still persevere.