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Masks, distance and wine: An art event in the age of coronavirus

Orlando Sentinel — Matthew J. Palm Orlando Sentinel

May 23--Traditionally, the third Thursday of each month is a time to celebrate art throughout downtown Orlando. But times, of course, are currently anything but traditional.

Orlando’s Downtown Arts District has long presented the Third Thursday Gallery Hop, in which various restaurants, boutiques, salons and actual galleries showcase local artists. You might find thousands of people on the streets during such an event -- and possibly street performers, too.

This past Thursday, there weren’t thousands out and about. But a dedicated group of art lovers showed up at CityArts, the collection of galleries run by the Downtown Arts District, for the opening of “Pompei Reimagined,” several new exhibitions related to the Italian city famously destroyed by a volcano.

Perhaps it’s fitting to reminisce about disaster while our economy and lifestyle are battered by coronavirus. Even the Pompeii theme has been hit by the current pandemic: The CityArts exhibits were meant to run in conjunction with Orlando Science Center’s “Pompeii: The Immortal City” exhibition.

That traveling look at Pompeii, destroyed by Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D., includes 80 artifacts, such as bronzes, pottery and frescos. Originally scheduled to open in June, “Pompeii: The Immortal City” has been delayed until at least this fall, according to Science Center officials.

A banner in the first gallery of CityArts optimistically reminds visitors the Science Center’s exhibit will be “coming soon.”

The pandemic has affected CityArts’ plans in other ways.

“We originally planned to have an artist in residence, Gianluca Foli from Rome,” said Downtown Arts District executive director Barbara Hartley. “However, due to travel restrictions, it was not possible. Instead we exhibited four of his originals and 10 prints.”

Foli was able to complete only one work specifically for the exhibition, Hartley said, because of a shortage of supplies in Italy, hard hit by COVID-19.

Programs with other participating artists are still up in the air.

As the host, Hartley is at the opening to greet guests, offer information on the various artists represented and welcome dignitaries. Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, a strong supporter of the downtown arts scene, stops by.

The bar is open for business -- wine being a fundamental component of any art opening. A family shuffles along together, listening to an explanation of the art they are viewing. Artist Josh Garrick arrives to see how CityArts, located in the historic Rogers Kiene Building on Magnolia Street, has displayed his work.

“Oh, it’s wonderful!” he cries.

All familiar sights.

But looking around at my fellow mask-wearing patrons still strikes a surreal note, as if we are all extras in some kind of apocalyptic movie.

I don’t feel unsafe. CityArts has taken all kinds of precautions. Masks are required. Capacity is strictly limited. Hand sanitizer is available throughout the gallery. But somehow it doesn’t seem real.

I run into a friend, and we have a conversation about travel -- from six feet apart. Eventually I realize that where I’m standing is too close to a piece of art hung on the wall; I’m in effect blocking other people from the art while maintaining social distance. So, midconversation, my friend and I slide over to a more open spot.

A fellow art fan and I briefly discuss one of the works we are both admiring, again from six feet away. The event is social, but not communal in the same way as before.

Markers on the floor -- with clever quotes about remaining apart -- remind people of social distancing. “Without great solitude, no serious work is possible,” advises Pablo Picasso. Even the sidewalk outside has been striped every six feet to guide those waiting for entry.

The biggest sense of normalcy comes from the art itself. Paintings, sculptures, photos, prints. Standing and gazing at the images, peering into the mind of the artist, contemplating my own emotional response: That’s when everything seems real again. That’s what art is about. That’s the reason we go.

If you go: “Pompei Reimagined” continues through June 14 at CityArts, 39 S. Magnolia Ave. in Orlando

Find me on Twitter @matt_on_arts or email me at mpalm@orlandosentinel.com. Want more theater and arts news? Go to orlandosentinel.com/arts.

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(c)2020 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)

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