As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to wreak financial devastation, many of America’s most beloved cultural institutions have been forced to take emergency measures to survive. A recent study suggested that one third of U.S. museums would not make it through the pandemic without financial relief, while members of the country’s creative workforce—an overwhelming percentage of which is self-employed—have found themselves with little to no government support. Unless the stimulus packages introduced by Congress to aid the country’s flagship cultural hubs are quickly extended to the very people who make them run day-to-day, America’s post-pandemic creative landscape will be unrecognizable.
Yet despite these sobering statistics, the creative community’s impressive efforts to rally together and provide financial support to those suffering most greatly as a result of the crisis pay testament to its resilience and resourcefulness, from photographic print sales to virtual seminars.
The latest effort comes courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art in downtown Los Angeles. With the launch of its MOCA Masks project today, the museum is aiming to raise urgent funds while also providing a means of brightening up the everyday practicalities of living under lockdown. The impressive lineup of participating artists includes the likes of Virgil Abloh, Yoko Ono, and Pipilotti Rist, with the majority of designs created specifically for the project. Contributions range from the humorous—Catherine Opie’s signature gender subversion here represented by a mustachioed mouth—to the more literal, such as Barbara Kruger’s design, which reads simply: “Better safe than sorry.”
Available from the MOCA store, all of the masks are manufactured in Los Angeles and priced at $28. “Each artist saw [making masks] as a very serious opportunity to bring art into daily life, and to make it caring and protective, which is what I think the masks should be,” says museum director Klaus Biesenbach of the project. “Of course, it has to be a design that fits into the shape of the mask, but each artist found an interesting way for form to follow function. They’re all very thoughtful.”
The idea came about after Biesenbach embarked upon a series of interviews with artists for MOCA’s social channels, as a replacement for the regular studio visits that serve as the foundation of his curatorial philosophy. “I remember being on the phone to Hank Willis Thomas, and at one point I said, ‘I can’t really hear you,’ and it was because he was wearing a mask, of course,” Biesenbach recalls. “I also reposted an image of a mask from the MOCA Instagram account, and one of our trustees, Karyn Kohl, texted me saying, ‘We should do this and I’ll support it.’ So it partly came from the artists, and partly from Karyn.”
As a historical parallel, Biesenbach references mail art, a tradition involving postcards or packages distributed by artists through the post that was pioneered by American artist Ray Johnson in the 1940s but brought to international attention by the DIY spirit of international Fluxus artists two decades later. “It’s accessible and affordable, but it’s also incredibly protective and useful,” Biesenbach adds. “I think in the best case, art always makes you pause and look differently at the world, and that’s what these masks do, just in an everyday context.”
Finally, beyond the immediate support the project offers for one of Los Angeles’s most popular cultural institutions, Biesenbach also hopes it will serve as a reminder of the wider importance of art as a means of finding moments of levity and joy during difficult times. “What would everybody have done during those months of lockdown without art, without movies, without literature?” he adds. “It should have made us aware that this is something we have to consider essential, and especially when you think about education and bringing art into communities. I just hope that the masks can remind us that art is an important part of our lives.”