As the coronavirus pandemic began to rage early this year, the Bass Museum of Art in Miami Beach had a problem. A planned exhibition—Abraham Cruzvillegas's "Hi, how are you, Gonzo?"—was interactive. "It was very touchy and germy," said Silvia Karman Cubiñá, the museum's executive director and chief curator. "It was not possible."
But this month, the museum began erecting an installation by Mr. Cruzvillegas that fits perfectly with pandemic times. "Agua Dulce" fills nearly 14,000 square feet of space in the park surrounding the museum with more than a thousand native plants, including many thought to have medicinal properties. Performers mimicking the song of birds and hum of insects, plus seating constructed with local materials, round out an environment intended to help visitors heal emotionally and relieve stress caused by the pandemic.
Beili Liu's "Mending the Sky..." installation
The $1.2- to $1.5-million project, where visitors can engage with art rooted in mindfulness and other Buddhist practices, including new works by 15 artists, is meant to help visitors manage anxiety and deal with personal and social challenges that have escalated this year. Construction has begun and the Lab will open next fall.
A lot of popular contemporary art is intended to provoke. But in this unsettling year, some museums, like the Bass and the Rubin, are installing works and exhibitions meant to do the opposite. They are stressing their meditative, even spiritual, side, with displays that may soothe nerves, facilitate communication, foster exploration of emotions, and overcome stress.
This impulse stems from years of experience with art therapy, which began growing in popularity long before the pandemic. Many museums serve veterans suffering from PTSD with programs in which they make art, study it, or both. Since 2018, the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester, N.H., has offered a weekly program that brings together families affected by the opioid crisis to view art and reflect on a theme, like resilience or shame. "We have recently expanded it to cover teen anxiety," said Alan Chong, the Currier's director.
A Mandala from Tibet in the Rubin Museum's collection
The New Orleans Museum of Art closed last spring but reopened in July at 50% capacity, with other precautions. Soon after the pandemic began, the museum decided to mount an exhibition to help visitors cope by imagining the world after the plague and other calamities, like the area's recurring, virulent storms. It commissioned 11 artists to create works dwelling on loss and uncertainty, but also envisioning hope and healing. Opened last month, "Mending the Sky" draws its title from an installation by Beili Liu that is based on a Chinese fable in which a goddess sews up a rip in the sky that rains down fire, famine and disease. Katie Pfohl, the exhibit curator, said she has watched visitors in the galleries and seen how "their shoulders drop and their faces light up" when they see the Liu installation. "Sometimes they sit for hours watching videos all the way through in the rest of the exhibition," she added.
Ms. Pfohl said most museums, closed for months, haven't had the resources to pivot to new shows. A few have acknowledged the virus's toll, however, through online offerings and projects suggesting hope, like the Metropolitan Museum of Art's commission from Yoko Ono, "Dream Together," two banners hung on the museum's façade. Some also gave free or priority entry to health-care workers.
Joseph Wight of Derby's "Lake by Moonlight with Castle on Hill," a painting used in the Montreal museum's programs.
Along with Bass staff and a Florida environmental consultant, Mr. Cruzvillegas planned the exhibition with drawings, many long, detailed emails and plenty of videoconferences, he said. The healing aspect, Mr. Cruzvillegas implied, is oblique, rather than direct. "I'm not a shaman," he said. Rather, he sees nature itself as a healer.
The Bass—which is presenting other outdoor exhibits during this period tied to the pandemic, about loneliness, solitude and resiliency—is hoping "Agua Dulce" is a lasting balm. When the installation closes, about six months from now, the plants will be uprooted and given to visitors.