Art Academy's Benjamin Cook Founds the Social Distance Gallery, and It's Already Amassed Over 14,000 Followers

This online gallery is providing a digital space for MFA and BFA student exhibitions

click to enlarge The Social Distance Gallery's Instagram. - INSTAGRAM.COM/SOCIALDISTANCEGALLERY/
The Social Distance Gallery's Instagram.

Most universities, in an effort to comply with "social distancing," have moved to remote learning. For art students, this presents a particular challenge: much of their education traditionally entails exhibiting their work in public spaces. 

That's where @socialdistancegallery comes in. The platform is a response to the COVID-19 virus, which the World Health Organization has called a global pandemic. In Ohio, Gov. Mike DeWine declared a state of emergency on March 10, and since has prohibited mass gatherings of 100 persons or more and ordered schools, among other institutions, to temporarily close their doors. Similar calls have been made in Kentucky and by governments around the globe. 

The Art Academy of Cincinnati, therefore, had to limit the number of guests each student was allowed to invite to their BFA shows to 10.

"A lot of students were understandably pretty upset. And I remembered how important my BFA and MFA show felt to me," says Benjamin Cook, an AAC adjunct professor. "The idea that it was four years of work that people had put in just kind of felt like it was all for nothing for circumstances that they had no control over really, really weighed on me."

He created an Instagram page for the "Social Distance Gallery" on March 13 on a whim to digitally exhibit student work from all corners, and it has since amassed over 14,000 followers.

And he's suited for the task. The Covington-based artist's own practice and research, according to his bio, is rooted in exploring the "spaces between the binary of digital and physical space" by combining "abstract mark-making with strategies of digital protocol."  

Cook says that the title of the project — the Social Distance Gallery — is, yes, a buzzword to discuss what many are doing right now in light of COVID-19. Beyond that, he thinks of it as the "idea that we can be social while distant." Online platforms, like Instagram, allow us to do so. In society-at-large, art is often consumed without ever seeing it face-to-face. 

"Those are still really genuine, valid experiences, people feel things, they pick things from those (interactions)," Cook says. "So I think stepping back and taking a look at — how do people actually engage with art these days? Museums and galleries and in-person experiences are one side of it, but seeing things in a digital format is another side."

He continues on to say that engaging with art in the digital format can open up other ways to experience various works. For starters, it makes it accessible; photos on a phone, for example, can be returned to in more private spaces, like one's home. Shareability is another factor. The posts on Social Distance Gallery will draw eyes that would have never had the chance to see the art due to geographical boundaries. 

"Follow the page and engage with it: like things, comment on it and start discussions," Cook says of supporting the artists. "And I hope that other young artists are able to link up with their colleagues from around the world and develop their own networks of friends and people that they can reach out to and have conversations with, and kind of continue that collective group of people supporting each other after they leave school.

"That's a big thing that happens when students leave school for the first time — they realize it's a lot different when they don't have a daily group of 40 or 50 other people making work in close quarters coming over and wanting to talk about art."

Not having that network can make it difficult to "maintain that intrinsic desire to" create, he says, adding that he hopes this gallery could, beyond addressing an immediate need to hold digital space, serve as a way to build up groups and keep that drive going so creatives can continue to do the work that is important to them. 

"The number of students who have reached out to me who originally felt completely dejected and lost because of all their work are coming to me with such excitement," Cook says, "and that alone has been giving me the energy to keep going."

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