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Creative Control: Barrett Barrera Projects’ Susan Barrett on COVID’s Impact on Art and Activism—and What Will Rise from the Ashes

Category: Visual Art

Author: Emily Bihl

Author: Emily Bihl

Creative Control: Barrett Barrera Projects’ Susan Barrett on COVID’s Impact on Art and Activism—and What Will Rise from the Ashes

It’s often said that creativity thrives in an environment of constraints. And with the entire global community currently experiencing a series of strict limitations due to COVID-19, there has perhaps been no greater moment of constraint in modern memory.

As taxing as the pandemic has been for all of us—and it’s difficult to overstate its crippling effect on nearly every aspect of our day-to-day lives—it has also provided some opportunities for new growth, whether personal or systemic. Susan Barrett, president of Barrett Barrera Projects, is uniquely attuned to both aspects of COVID’s impact. The inability to gather in groups has posed a challenge for her gallery spaces, but the forced pause afforded by this disruption of daily life has offered something unique in its place: a moment for re-evaluation, and a situation that rewards outside-the-box approaches.

“I heard a comment that I’d love to take credit for but can’t,” says Barrett. “It was that, when people feel out of control—like during a pandemic—they naturally turn to creation and activism so they can feel like they have control over something.”

We’ve certainly seen the renewed energy around activism across the country during this time, and, naturally, in Barrett’s line of work, art and activism often go hand-in-hand. BBP’s upcoming exhibit “Just Pictures,” curated by critic and author Antwaun Sargent, assumes renewed importance, showcasing genre-defying photographers taking a wide and varied view of experiences of Blackness across the globe.

For Barrett, the tension afforded by COVID and the activism it has produced is fertile ground for new work. “Simply having this major disruption is fodder for any creative,” she explains. “It is rich with material to rethink paradigms. What worked for us? What didn’t work? I love strategic planning and we are all doing that now—whether it’s with work, family or education.”

Luckily, rethinking paradigms is what Barrett Barrera Projects has always done best. Heading up an entity that has never fit neatly into any one box offered by the art world, Barrett is in a unique position to pivot and shift to fit the current moment. “The uniqueness of our shows gives us immense flexibility in readjusting to the current situations,” she explains. “We often speak about the opportunities for new platforms and possibilities of recreating them. One thing we’ve discussed is how to show art without having to go inside, how to somehow use the buildings and windows as platforms for showcasing art.”

Of course, the connection of the internet provides new opportunities for BBP’s exhibitions to reach a wider audience, but Barrett remains concerned with finding ways to replicate the intimate, sensory experience that BBP’s in-gallery shows have become known for.

“We’ve discussed the opportunity for digital offerings by presenting exhibitions to an international audience and showing past exhibitions,” she says. “It’s not new, the use of digital, but it’s something we previously didn’t focus on. Our focus was on a very personal experience for the viewer and in conceiving of our exhibitions for our local audience. Now that those boundaries are collapsing, we need to be cognizant of not losing that personal experience, while showing on different platforms and scales.”

As the role of the gallery shifts dramatically, Barrett’s polymathic tendencies begin to come through. “The gallery space has become so much more than the brick-and-mortar building that artwork occupies. It has become a source of education, engagement and enrichment during a time when there are limited options for respite from the precarity of our current circumstances. In opening projects+exhibitions, that was one of our goals—to have an immersive art experience and to get close to the materials.”

Shifting to virtual venues, preserving this feeling tends to take the shape of engaging in conversations that even brick-and-mortar gallery visitors might not normally be privy to. “We’ve had to learn to adapt to the current state of the world and to find innovative ways to continue to bring the experience of art to the public. Among our current projects, we have initiated virtual exhibitions like ‘Ask Her How She’s Doing’ by Katherine Simóne Reynolds, and we hosted a virtual conversation with guest curator Antwaun Sargent on the upcoming exhibition ‘Just Pictures,’ which opens at projects+gallery Sept. 10.”

Another multimedia pursuit that brings the diverse feeling of community found at BBP’s IRL-openings into the digital space is Barrett’s new podcast series, entitled “Art Is a Verb,” debuting on Friday, Aug. 28. “We discuss how life and creation has changed during this stressful time,” says Barrett, touting an impressive guest list including fashion icon and innovator Dapper Dan and rebellious Russian protest-punk band Pussy Riot, among other star commentators such as Parker Posey and Rachel Comey. “The ‘Art Is a Verb’ podcast explores ways we are reconstructing our world and creating a new reality in this time through art, design, fashion and other creative careers,” Barrett says.

Fashion, too, has been a constant presence in BBP’s programming. “Ann Ray & Lee McQueen: Rendez-Vous,” a show exploring the relationship between one of the fashion world’s most legendary rule-breakers and the photographer who catalogued his life, has been widely celebrated and is currently enjoying an extension from its original run at projects+exhibitions in The Grove.

Following it up now at Barrett Barrera Projects in the Central West End is “Introducing Alexander Lee McQueen,” a show which puts McQueen ephemera front and center as another way of understanding the artist.

“I tend to be a collector—of art, objects, music, books—who wants to dive deeply into the artist’s oeuvre,” explains Barrett of the exhibition’s origins. “If there’s a song I like, I tend to want to listen to the whole album, and then listen to all of them. The more I live with or experience an artist’s work, the more influence it has on me. It seeps into my soul.”

Her relationship with McQueen has been a sustaining source of inspiration, as both of these exhibits illustrate. “With McQueen, I almost feel he came to me. What started as a simple idea I had has led to an in-depth introduction to his inner circle—through objects they gave us and sold to us and, most importantly, personal friendships. McQueen has become a pivotal person in my life who has brought his work and understandings of his mindset to me quite unexpectedly. It’s really a remarkable gift that an artist I always admired yet never met has had this much influence on me. It’s almost like a distant family member …”

But in a cultural moment that feels like a ticking time bomb for many institutions, Barrett agrees that capital-F Fashion is overdue for a make-under. “I think this is a pivotal time for the fashion industry, which, like most of the industries we are witnessing, needed an overhaul. The fashion industry has not been sustainable financially or environmentally for a long time, and the answer was to ‘make more, faster.’ It had designers presenting up to six or seven collections a year. No business and no person can survive that pressure,” she says.

Her proposed solution is a return to a slower, more thoughtful way of creating. “If I had my way, fashion designers would go back to their roots and create individually instead of reacting to business trends and dictates. They would return to the time before their fashion houses were bought by corporations and create what inspires them personally, having the flexibility to play and experiment, like young artists do now and fashion designers did in the 1980s. They could create new materials that would not be environmentally taxing and repurpose clothes and objects that have been discarded. I think trends would gravitate towards the craft of the object and consumers would buy less but spend more on quality.”

It’s from this vision of a more conscious, well-considered future rising from the ashes of COVID that Barrett is able to find a more optimistic tone. “Everyone is becoming a creative now,” she says. “Whether it’s through baking sourdough bread or painting or redesigning their house.”

Images are from the exhibit “Introducing Alexander Lee McQueen,” now open at Barrett Barrera Projects in the Central West End. Join Jessica Baran, associate director of curatorial and program development, and Attilio D’Agostino of Curbside STL,  on Tuesday, Sept. 1, at 5:30 p.m. for an Instagram Live tour of the exhibit.

Images courtesy of David Johnson.