Whitehot Magazine

Interview with Benjamin Cook, creator of The Social Distance Gallery Project

Cassia Powell, University of Victoria, Fold the Cloth


Thousands of BFA and MFA students across the globe are affected by shutdowns due to COVID-19 with their thesis exhibitions either canceled or restricted. Event cancellations are our new and unfortunate normal, so innovative alternatives are required. The Instagram account @socialdistancegallery is working to fill this gap by digitally exhibiting student work. 

The Social Distance Gallery project is the brainchild of Benjamin Cook, a painter and professor at the Art Institute of Cincinnati. Created March 13, the account has amassed over seventeen thousand followers and has published shows from over twenty different schools. I spoke with Cook about the project and its practice. 

AMELIA ANTHONY: When did the idea of the social distance gallery come to you? 

BENJAMIN COOK: I make paintings and then I photograph them, and then I use those images of my work as content for digital-based projects that explore dissemination in between digital and physical spaces. This project, Social Distance Gallery, seems like a natural solution since it's just an extension of my practice already. 

At our school, we had to originally limit the number of guests students could bring to their BFA shows, which they were understandably very upset about. Since then, we've cancelled them altogether. I realized that was something that was happening all across the nation and the world — all these students put in all this time and effort just to have it pulled away from them at the last minute. I decided to start this project to fill in that gap and explore those spaces. How do we think about art when it's not right in front of us in person? How do we think about community? What role does all that play?  

AA: What is the purpose of the project? What is its mission? 

BC: The project is posting thesis exhibitions of BFA and MFA students who are affected by the shutdowns, since a lot of shows are either being cancelled or limited in viewership. I'm allowing them to send their entire show together, so gather all the students in their group, collect all the images and information and send those to me. Then I'm posting them, in these group shows, on the page.  

The goal for the project is to introduce the artists to thousands of eyes, to let people get in touch and see artwork from their colleagues and the community across the world. Hopefully they can further investigate each other's work and kind of form their own new groups and collectives and support systems and networks — all that kind of stuff that becomes really important post-education. So many galleries find new artists by going to the MFA shows this time of year, and that's not going to happen. It's almost like a whole generation, or year, of artists is getting lost. I'm hoping that some of the artists on here get noticed, that somebody reaches out to them and they set up their own relationships. 

Tatjana Reithofer, OCAD University, Shrine of Shifting Sands

AA: Can you walk me through the process for submitting work? 

BC: [Students should] gather three images of their work, and if they have install shots, if they actually got to set it up into a space, send those also. I'd love to post those. Then they email it to socialdistancegallery@gmail.com.

I really don't want people to send me just their work, but to take a little bit of time and work with their colleagues and get all of the information sent to me in one email, so I can show them with the people they've been working with for the past three or four years. I think it's important to have their work shown next to their colleagues because of all of the conversations that have occurred throughout their time working together. There's going to be interesting communications between the works. 

AA: How many artists have reached out to you? Do you have any submission criteria? 

BC: I've had hundreds of artists reach out, and a bunch of teachers and faculty and administrators also reach out. My thought is, it's not up to me if they get to show their work. They put in the work and they were going to have a show. I'm just changing the location of where that show is going to be. 

Jared leClaire, Garden of Forking Paths

AA: How long are you planning on keeping up this project, especially after this period of social distancing is over? 

BC: Well, it's really up in the air. I mean, we don't know how long all this is gonna last or what the effects are going to be. I'll keep posting stuff through the end of the school year at least, because I know for a lot of students their show wasn't even scheduled for another couple weeks or so. It may have to roll over into the summer too, depending on how many works I get.  

The project happened so quickly, so it's not like most of my projects where I can plan it out and have all the structures and platforms set into place before I push it out to the public. This has been much more like making a painting, where you have to make decisions as you go and respond to the things that are happening. What the end will look like depends on everything between now and that point. 

AA: Do you have any tips for artists who are quarantined right now?

BC: Stay engaged, make work, explore new materials in your home!

Interested BFA and MFA students affected by the shutdowns are encouraged to submit their artwork to the Social Distance Gallery. Submission instructions can be found on the website. WM


Amelia Anthony

Amelia Anthony is a student and writer. She lives in Providence, RI.

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