Rosie Lee Tompkins was a widely respected Bay Area quilt maker in the late 20th-century. Now more than ever, her masterful, artistic quilts, currently showcased by the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, are symbols of comfort in this time of crisis.
BAMPFA opened its display of Tompkins’ works in February, but in light of shelter-in-place orders due to the coronavirus, this exhibition has had to adapt to virtual-only viewing. While this does spark challenges for the museum, making space for online tours has also proven to be a way BAMPFA can increase the accessibility of its featured art.
“There are a lot of people who physically can’t come to the museum; they can’t afford to,” said Lawrence Rinder, former BAMPFA director, in an interview with The Daily Californian. “There are people all over the world now who will be able to have some experience with Rosie Lee Tompkins, even if it’s not in-person, who otherwise wouldn’t. I think that would be the case if we did more of these things even after shelter in place was over, and I suspect that it may be the case that more people are inspired to come see the works in-person after learning a bit more online.”
Rinder co-curated the Tompkins exhibit with Elaine Yau, beginning planning about a year ago. As the museum closed to encourage social distancing, Rinder felt it necessary to still give Tompkins’ work a platform.
“I felt that it was really important that people be able to see every single work in the exhibition online, and not only that, but have a kind of walk through experience,” Rinder said. “There are things that you can do with the internet that are actually difficult to do in reality, like have a presentation where a tour guide talks about each and every work. If you were in the museum, that would be maybe a little bit exhausting, to go through and have someone talk about every single work in the show, but online you can do it, because if people get tired of listening to you, they can put it on pause and come back later.”
He continued: “We always do prefer that people have an in-person encounter with art. … An in-person experience is really kind of central to understanding what the artist was trying to do — it’s one of the reasons that we have a museum and a film theater, otherwise we could all just be reading books and looking at things online.”
While viewers are limited to virtual experiences at the moment, Rinder believes Tompkins’ message of comfort can still be absorbed through a screen.
“The idea of the quilt as an object of comfort is really central to what they are,” Rinder said. “Even before (COVID-19), the world was a challenging place: From climate change to all the craziness that’s going on politically, these quilts just feel really timely … I just wish people could see them in person.”
“I just think that Rosie Lee Tompkins was such a genius — everything she touched turned to something wonderful,” Rinder continued. “So whenever I look at her work, … even if it’s kind of an incidental fragment, I just am blown away by it. She really had this kind of amazing eye and ability to put textures and colors and shapes together in ways that somehow, miraculously, are powerfully expressive.”
Especially now, Tompkins’ creations are places of peace. While many are discussing the essentiality of art amid a pandemic, Rinder’s answer is certain.
“I fall firmly in the camp of ‘art is important in times of crisis,’ ” Rinder said. “I mean, maybe more important than ever. It’s what has gotten humanity through many of its worst times. Art is almost always what people fall back on to give themselves the hope to carry on through dark periods.”
He continued: “There’s only so much you can do that’s practical: buying the groceries, learning how to disinfect things when you come home. At a certain point, you have to step back and connect with something deeper than that, and that’s where art comes in. I really feel that it is critically important, and the fact that people can’t get to museums right now doesn’t mean they can’t have access to art. They can make art, they can look at art online, but there are many ways for people to connect with that creative space, whether it’s their own or appreciating the creativity of others.”
And since BAMPFA owns 500 pieces by Rosie Lee Tompkins, future museumgoers can expect to eventually experience the quilt maker’s work in person — whether it be on a solo study venture or on a casual outing with a friend.
“Museums are one of the, I think, best social gathering places in our society,” Rinder said. “I do think and expect that there may be some kind of revival in people’s appreciation of and partaking in social experiences like museums and film theaters. Everyone’s going to have to get over their concern about viral transmission, and so this may not happen until there’s a vaccine, but I do think that we will eventually get back to normal, and I’m hopeful that museums come out of this stronger than ever.”