From Instagram to MFA, Shelter in Place shines a light on big issues


The small gallery – with its mini synthetic brick walls and black-paned windows giving it an air of post-industrial chic dollhouse – had a simple role. Haines worked in miniature (scale: 1 inch to 1 foot) and photographed his pieces in situ for online viewing. But along with the lack of space, another fact of being an artist in Boston, which almost inevitably requires a day job, is the lack of time; so the little gallery ended up on the shelf for, as Haines recently recalled, a “rainy day”.

Then, in March 2020, it sank: with widespread closures leaving entire cities full of artists with nowhere to show, Haines was ready. In April, he and his then-fiancée, Delaney Dameron, launched an open appeal to local artists for exhibition ideas for the small space. For a suddenly socially distant world, this was a perfect stopgap: artists could submit an entire exhibit in a shoebox, and Haines and Dameron could set it up to be photographed for. virtual visualization on Instagram. (Instagram also tells me that, since last month, the couple are now married.)

Eben Haines’ Shelter in Place gallery featured in the exhibition “New Light: Encounters and Connections” at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in July.Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

They called it the Shelter in Place Gallery, a literal reflection of its moment. But it’s more than a moment, both for the pandemic and for the project. More than a year later, Shelter in Place is no longer a stopgap; the small space has hosted over 100 exhibitions, most of them by local artists, making it arguably the most vital and timely showcase of artistic activity in the city during this long and bizarre period.

He also landed in “New light,” a showcase of new acquisitions at the Musée des Beaux-Arts. (Don’t worry: while the gallery is under glass in the museum, Haines and Dameron had a backup ready to go, and the exhibits on Instagram continue.) The museum, in its description, calls it Shelter in Place ” a historical marker of a moment of crisis as well as an innovative artistic response to it. While this is true, it only captures the beginning of a very ongoing story. Museums and galleries have reopened, in the together, in the summer or fall of 2020, but Shelter in Place continued to do shows for its ever-growing audience, which now stands at nearly 12,000.

This is because the ultimate genius of Shelter in Place is more enduring and expansive than a crisis response. Haines’ initial impulse is still true: Pandemic or not, affordable space to make or display art outside of the city’s large museum footprints is scarce, indeed (this, of course, is not not just a problem in Boston, and exhibitions have recently expanded to accommodate artists from all over).

Shelter in Place may be a marker of a crisis, but the pandemic flashpoint only illuminates a bigger, longer, and ultimately more damaging concern: a rapid and growing affordability crisis at the heart of the crisis. a city that threatens to displace not only creative activity, but a whole breadth of dynamic and diverse commerce and culture. With Shelter in Place, Haines and Dameron are just one branch of this dynamism; they also remind us, with so many shards of their little Instagram window, how much there is to lose – and how much has already been lost.

A view of the 2021 James and Audrey Foster Prize installation at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston.
A view of the 2021 James and Audrey Foster Prize installation at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston.Mel Taing © Eben Haines

So it’s with more than a little irony, I think, that Haines finds himself this fall in two of the city’s main museums. In addition to “New Light,” Haines is also one of three artists to receive the 2021 Foster Prize, awarded every two years by the Institute of Contemporary Art to artists in the Boston area. During the prize exhibition, each artist – Haines, Dell Marie Hamilton, and Marlon Forrester – are presented discreetly and separately, like a mini solo show.

Hamilton, whose work as a curator – notably, the recent and brilliant “Nine moments for the moment” at the Harvard Cooper Gallery in 2018 – draws on her incisive take on the exclusions of history, transforms the gallery into the personal archive of art historian Susan Denker, legendary longtime professor at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts specializing in African-American Art and Culture. Forrester, currently Artist in Residence in the Northeast African-American Masters-in-Residence Program, presents five paintings from his 2021 series “If Black Saints Could Fly 23: si volare posset nigra XXIII sanctorum”, which incorporate devotional motifs whites with well-known black personalities from Barack Obama to George Floyd and Trayvon Martin.

Haines, for one, creates a completely immersive world: the product of, perhaps, a year and a half of great repressed thoughts being funneled into something so small. He calls it “Façades”, and it has the collective meaning of a session: large paintings with deep crease marks hung like tapestries on painted paneled walls; chairs and tables partly swallowed up by the walls.

There is something painfully New England about it all, from Shaker-style furniture to undertones of the occult and blue-blooded secret societies (need I remind you, this area is teeming with utopian spiritual patterns that bleed easily in experimental psychology, psychic metaphysics, telepathy). It has to be taken as a whole, but you can stop to be impressed by Haines’ skill as a painter: on a canvas, an elongated figure draped in a red shroud hovers above the ground; in another, a fragile autumnal landscape quivers under the flame of a lighted candle and a ball of fire crossing an ashy sky.

A view of the 2021 James and Audrey Foster Prize installation at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston.
A view of the 2021 James and Audrey Foster Prize installation at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. Mel Taing © Eben Haines

A sense of threat permeates; something is about to go wrong. Or maybe he already has? “Façades” is the literal point: Throughout the installation, Haines peeled off the surface to reveal his own illusion. The walls are sliced ​​at knee height, exposing crisp aluminum wall studs; slip behind a sharp gable and you’ll find this landscape nailed in front of the bland brown paper backing of Home Depot’s standard drywall.

Get the point? According to him, New England’s distinguished veneer of power is thin, indeed – another illusion, like Shelter in Place’s projection of a vast, democratic urban space open to broad expressions of culture. In one, the power loses its grip and the veneer shows its cracks; while in the other, the illusion may be all that remains, once the power is done with it. Haines’ illusions, ultimately, are not illusions at all, but visions of reality through a clarifying lens.


At the Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave., until February 6, 617-267-9300,


At the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, 25 Harbor Shore Drive, until January 30. 617-478-3100,

Murray Whyte can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on twitter @TheMurrayWhyte.

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