Seven Questions With CMA's Nannette Maciejunes

Suzanne Goldsmith
Nannette Maciejunes by the Columbus Museum of Art in 2015

Art After Stonewall, the much-praised exhibition of LGBTQ art, was organized by the Columbus Museum of Art but traveled to New York and Miami before finally opening in Columbus on March 6. So it was uniquely disappointing when the museum closed the following week to help stop the spread of Covid-19. Earlier this month, Gov. DeWine announced that museums could reopen, and CMA opened its doors to members June 23 and will be open to the general public beginning June 30.

Originally slated to close May 31, Art After Stonewall has been extended to remain on display until Oct. 4, although a much-anticipated Aminah Robinson exhibition has been postponed until 2021. (The Pizzuti Collection, which is part of CMA, is still closed and will not reopen until late August or early September.) New protocols will be in place in the reopened museum, including a requirement that visitors make advance reservations to enter the museum at a specific time. Masks are strongly encouraged, says Nannette Maciejunes. “Face-covering is kind to others. That’s how we talk about it at the museum.” The museum’s longtime executive director spoke with Columbus Monthly this week about the challenges of reopening during a pandemic, and the role art can play during a time of community hardship and upheaval. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

While the museum is primarily an indoors rather than an outdoors experience, even indoors it's great for social distancing. You can stay really far away from people and enjoy the experience of an art museum. We had a test run on Friday—we had about 100 volunteers come to test out the new protocols. There were a couple of glitches: People told us what they thought we should change, such as additional hand sanitizer stations, and we did that.

In the café, we’ve reset all the tables so that there's social distancing. The other big change is there used to be this line that you stood in to order at Schokko. Now we have a hostess that seats you with a one-time-use menu. They bring everything to you, and even the transaction of paying is done at the table. And then you can also eat outside when it's lovely and all the tables [are at] a social distance outside as well. I don't think people ever liked the line, so they may like it better.

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We sort of attacked it three ways. The first thing is we went through and temporarily removed some of the engagements or “connectors” that were extremely hands-on, that everybody touched. We took those down. The second thing we did is, for right now, the Wonder Room is closed because we can't figure how to make the Wonder Room work in a safe way. We will, but we're not there yet, so we decide not to open it yet. The third thing we did was we have a regimen of cleaning that everything that is in the museum that has any kind of people touching anything is cleaned once an hour. We also are offering your own personal Essential Experience Bag. It has your own Post-it notes, your own pencil, that only you will touch. People have different levels of comfort. Some are, “OK, you’re cleaning every hour, and there are 100 visitors today—I’m OK with touching that.” Other people feel, “I really want to have my own.” So we're trying to do a range of responses that make it good for everybody.

I am! I don't think I knew how just how much I just really missed people until I saw them back in the museum.

Like all museums, we learned so much about communicating online and Zoom programming, and we've discovered that even more people connect with you online than actually might come. In a little more than a month, we connected with a million people online. It was just amazing, really. So I think you're going to see a lot of us continue robust online programming.

But the core experience, of course, is getting to come and be with the works of art. So it was just so heartening to see people come in and how excited they were to be back at their museum. They missed it.

Art objects ultimately are a form of communication, human communication. And for me, an artwork is never truly complete without the viewer. It is that magical, extraordinary moment of recognition between the viewer and the work of art that is the heart of the experience. You care for works of art so that those moments could happen. 

We wanted it to be a taste of the show. In the end, it’s going to be great for the show. We had an 11-day run [before the shutdown]. Now we’ll be able to have almost three and a half months. There must be almost 100 lenders to the Stonewall exhibition, so contacting all of them and asking permission to extend it to Oct. 4 was a lot of work, but what really is heartening is that no one said no. Everyone wanted their work to stay.

And we, of course, have some of our work out from our collection. Some of my very dearest “children” in the collection are in other countries and can't come home right now, but I know our colleagues are taking good care of them.

I do, and I think two things. One is that I think there is some resonance with the show because it made you realize that every generation has to stand up for civil rights. Is it like, one and done? No, it's an ongoing struggle for equity for everyone.

I think the show resonates in the sense that this was 50 years ago, and this riot, this Stonewall riot, was not the first—and George Floyd, too, was not the first African American to die at the hands of police violence. He was not the first, but it was this moment that made everybody stand up and say, “No. We're not going to do this anymore.” It was that way at the Stonewall riot. There were other moments in the struggle for LGBTQ rights that happened, but this seemed to have been a point of inflection where people were like, “OK, we're not going to do this, we're not going to put up with this anymore, we're going to stand up. 

Second, one of the things I am most proud is that all of us who were developing the show worked really hard to make sure that, as people of color and trans people were incredibly important in that riot and central to that standing-up, making sure in the show that we included those voices was important. The problem with the art world of 50 years ago is that it was very much a white male art world. So it's kind of easy to find work by white gay men. They are right in your face and even cisgender white lesbian women, you can find some of that, but the truth is that there were trans artists working and doing incredibly good work at that moment. There were artists of color at that moment, doing incredibly important work. It's just that they didn't have gallery representation. They weren't in shows. We didn't do a perfect job, but we really worked on that. I'm really proud of that, and that resonates even more strongly with me in this moment for our country.

Melissa Vogley Woods is a professor at Denison, and she had been experimenting with this reflective vinyl in a window of her house, and we found out about that. We started asking a lot of questions, and she got interested in doing a piece that speaks to the pandemic of 1919. So she went through the collection with one of our registrars remotely and found this fantastic still life, it's a wonderful piece but it's rarely on the wall, it's part of the house collections by an American artist whose name looks quite French, Louis Bouché. And she found the design components in that still life. Because she wanted to speak back to another challenging moment in the world. 

The piece is her response to that, it's an incredible piece, and it’s almost finished. On a beautiful sunny day it casts great shadows on that wall as you walked up to the museum, and at night if you take a photograph of it with your cellphone it really pops, because it’s highway vinyl. So it changes.

I'm so excited about the piece. Because, you know, art has this capacity to inspire us, to help us be more resilient, often to heal. At the core, it helps you see the world anew. Afresh. A way that you maybe didn't see it. This piece does that for me—and we would probably never have stumbled on this project without Covid.

How is the museum moving forward with a schedule of exhibitions for the fall? 

Oh, I need to tell you, it's a challenge, trying to figure out what's possible with budget restrictions. How do we move art around the world? That’s a whole new conversation. Maybe in an ideal world, I would want to push the Raphael tapestry show back, but they were installing it in Germany as the world shut down for several months. So it will be coming in November. The things are all together already, so it's either send everything home or try for it, and my vote was to try for it.

The tapestries are extraordinary. I had to hang them in the upper part of the second floor wall because it's the only place the ceilings were high enough. These are big things, wow, I'm excited. They're just wonderful. It's been quite a success in Germany.

And you know, Aminah had to push back. This summer was going to be Aminah Robinson, but it will be next spring and summer, so it's coming. Lots of good stuff to look forward to. Then the restoration of her house will be ready so we can roll out the residency for GCAC at the same time. And the exhibition will run longer; I was able to create more time around it. It’s going to be fantastic. We'll roll from Raphael to Aminah.