From Crisis To Renaissance: Q&A With Art Curator Lolita Cros

First came the plague. Then came the renaissance. Art curator & dealer Lolita Cros discusses the historical connection between crisis and epiphany, the way artists respond to upheaval, and the vital role that art will play in our post-quarantine world.
From Crisis To Renaissance: Q&A With Art Curator Lolita Cros

Historically, how do artists and the art world respond to crisis? 

The ability to find creativity and excitement; the ability to keep working – these are weird instincts that creatives have during a crisis. During quarantine, I started looking back at past crises – the Great Depression, the [bubonic] plague that preceded the Renaissance – and looking at the way artists and the art world have reacted. Why artists are meaningful and why art is usually what gets us out of crisis. 

In these moments, art becomes a marker of time; something that captures what people will remember. When you think about the French Revolution, for instance, you remember a lot of the art that was made around that time. You don't really remember what the Kings of France did in detail, but you remember the chairs that were created during that era. You remember the architecture that emerged from that era. 

There will be a pre-quarantine era and a post-quarantine era. Coronavirus will really define the world we are entering. So, this is a weird, but exciting time for people to buy art, because they want to be part of what’s happening. They want to remember this time. I bought a couple pieces myself, because I thought: I need to remember this ‘now.’ 

GEORGES JACOB, QUEEN'S BOUDOIR AT VERSAILLES, 1781


How is COVID-19 shifting and shaping today’s artists & their work? 

In moments of crisis, artists tend to prioritize intellectualism. They prioritize risk-taking over formulas. People are craving more meaningful art. When you look at the AIDS crisis, the art that came out of that was so important, so raw, so meaningful, so interesting – and not marketable per se. Sure, people bought it, but it wasn’t made to sell. 

For the past fifteen years, a lot of art has played off ideas like Jeff Koons’. The post-pop artist. People who think, ‘Oh, I can live off being an artist. That’s a new way to make money.’ Things haven’t shifted yet, but it’s interesting to feel it coming. 

I talk to artists I worked with before the crisis who are saying, ‘I feel like my voice matters now, more than ever before.’ The artists of color that I work with are saying, ‘I’ve been talking about inequalities in Black and Brown communities for years. And the way that COVID-19 has affected them so much more just proves my point.’ 

These artists feel their voices are important. Even if their work isn’t focused on a health crisis, the themes reflect and intersect with the health crisis we are living through. I believe that in every crisis, meaningful art, non-sell-out art, comes out on top. The conversations people are craving are deeper, more philosophical, so it’s very fulfilling when an artist brings these conversations into their work. 

JEFF KOONS, BALLOON DOG, EXHIBITION AT CHÂTEAU DE VERSAILLES, 2008


What patterns of both resilience & roadblock have you witnessed in artists during quarantine? 

I started doing studio visits and checking in artists very early on in quarantine – week one, week two – so, I got to see them evolve. By week two, they were almost all picking up a new medium. A painter no longer felt like painting, partly because they weren’t in their studios and didn’t want to be living in turpentine oil everywhere, but mostly because painting felt weird. They didn’t want to kee life as it was before. 

So, those painters would pick up drawing, or photography, or free writing. Almost like they needed to exercise another part of their brain. While photographers picked up a paint brush for the first time in a while. It’s funny because everybody – even non-artists – went into a mode of needing to be new at something. We all wanted to be learning and exercising different parts of our brains. Some people picked up languages. Other people started cooking. Even if you suck at it, you want to feel that freshness again. Artists very much did that in their practices. 

By week four, artists began to get into new rhythms. There the ups and downs that come with that. They realized, ‘Oh, I’m actually going to be stuck here for a few months, or maybe this is my new life.’ Some had shows that they had worked on for six month, that are now just going to live online on a weird exhibition site. Others started working on new series or incorporating new Coronavirus ideas into past series. 


How will COVID-19 shape non-artists’ relationship with art? 

I think people’s relationship with art will deepen. No matter who you are or what your background is, art is an uplifting way of viewing a problem; or just viewing life. This is what happened with the Renaissance. After the plague, all these artists thought, ‘You know what? I almost died. Every single person around me almost died. Life on earth actually might be more important than the afterlife, so let’s make really good art so people can have a sublime experience while on Earth.’ That’s how the greatest movement of art came to be. 

So, that’s how I feel about this one. I think people will come to say, ‘Oh, you know what? That long story I read in The New Yorker is actually much more interesting than this short news article I read.’ People want something a little bit deeper. When they see artwork that is really moving, they will actually sit down to watch it and listen to it and to learn about it. 

MICHELANGELO, THE CREATION OF ADAM, 1512


What are some ways we can support artists right now? 

Artists, more than ever, need money. Most of them had a side job that they've probably lost. Babysitting, bartending, part time gigs. My worry is that even the good artists are not going to be able to survive being only an artist. From there, the fear is that a lot of good artists will just stop making art. 

On an individual level, you can of course keep buying and investing in art. Especially because this is a moment you want to remember. But, on a bigger level, I think we need institutions or grassroots movements to support studios, canvases, whatever materials artists need. I hope that more residency programs or rent-free studios will be installed throughout the city.

That institutional level of support is what led to the Abstract Expressionist movement in the ‘30s. A lot of aid came from the Roosevelt government. FDR really created an art hub through residencies and grants – and the United States became a very important place for artists and for modernism. France was riding that wave until World War II. And before that, Paris was the epicenter, because the government was promoting art there. This crisis really made me realize how important it is to be backed up by institutions. 

That’s a lot of hope to put on our current national government, but I do hope that we can see support on a state or local level. Now more than ever, we need to build structure for artists. For great art movements to happen, you don't only need good artists, you really need a support system.  

LEE KRASNER, UNTITLED, 1964

 

Any good book or documentary recommendations on art, empathy and epiphany during crisis? 

  • NINTH STREET WOMEN | I read this the first week of quarantine and it carried me through. It gave me the energy to keep doing what I do. It tells the story of five women who shaped 20th century abstract art. The New York described in the book, I think, will be the New York we will live in for the next ten years. Already, when you walk the streets, it feels like the seventies, a futuristic seventies. It’s a crazy time to be in a city like this. 

  • LIVES OF ARTISTS  | Written in the 16th century [Giorgio Vasari,] this is the only known record of the life of Italian Renaissance artists. It’s a cute read, because it’s a very poor translation and printed in very simple language, but it’s a cool window into the ways artists lived through both crisis and the epiphanies that follow. 

  • PARADISE BUILT IN HELL | [Rebecca Solnit] covers seven or eight different instances of past crisis–  from the Spanish Flu to 911 – and explores how communities were able to move past the pain and find happiness during those times when they least expected it.

  • THE VIETNAM WAR | A documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. The best docu-series on the Vietnam War which, as a French person, was so foreign to me. I treated it also as research on past crises, to shine a light on the current and by the time I got to the part on MLK’s assassination, George Floyd had just been murdered and the state of the world was in the exact same shape as it was in 1968. It was uncanny yet so telling.

  • CRIP CAMP | A documentary that was suggested to me by artist Christine Sun Kim, during one of our virtual studio visits. Another eye opening film that takes place in the ‘70s and is incredibly relevant today. It’s the story of a group of young disabled people attending a summer camp called Camp Jened, who decide to join the disability rights movement to demand equal opportunities. 

  • I started watching it after protesting for a month and feeling exhausted, discouraged and frustrated, after seeing no demands being met. This movie showed me that a small grassroots movement occupying government buildings, like activists are now occupying City Hall, got a whole country to pass laws that allowed them accessibility, employment and recognition. It gave me a new wave of hope and commitment to the civil rights movements happening now. They should screen it outside City Hall!  

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    Lolita Cros is an independent art curator born in Paris and working in New York. She is known for supporting both established and emerging artists. Mixing known works and works yet to be discovered, Lolita gives platform to conversations that are often lacking in the art world – and offers a wide audience a new perspective. 

    Support Lolita: @l0l0lita

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