Ellen Rothenberg's let's switch it up! is viewable online and as a window installation as part of "Anthem." Credit: Courtesy Weinberg/Newton Gallery

In planning for its 2020 season, Weinberg/Newton Gallery owner and executive director David Weinberg and his team partnered with the ACLU of Illinois to create an exhibition addressing the 2020 election in alignment with the gallery’s mission to engage the public in social justice issues. But faced with social distancing guidelines, and in the interest of public safety, the gallery has been shut down since March, altering previously laid plans. From there, the gallery’s curator and codirector Kasia Houlihan shifted gears and worked to open the exhibition online.

The result of their efforts is “Anthem,” a virtual exhibition addressing voter suppression and voting rights issues ahead of the 2020 presidential election. It’s visible on the Weinberg/Newton Gallery website until December 19. The exhibition features work of varying mediums such as painting, laser cutting, and poetry from Bethany Collins, Jaclyn Conley, Eve L. Ewing, Mike Gibisser, Naima Green, Ellen Rothenberg, and Sanaz Sohrabi.

In reimaging the exhibition, Houlihan encouraged the artists to conceptualize the virtual context as an opportunity to display their work in a way that wouldn’t be possible in a physical setting. She says that each of the artists responded to that call in their own way, but points to the work of painter Jaclyn Conley as an example of the success of this approach. Conley’s painting A Gathering is a collage of figures based on images from photographs of presidential campaign rallies. In the virtual format, audiences can view the source images alongside her painting. “In several ways it offers this window into the artist’s process a little bit more,” Houlihan says. “The presence of the artist’s voice is there.”

Although the interior of the Weinberg/Newton Gallery remains shuttered, “Anthem” features a limited live component. let’s switch it up! by artist Ellen Rothenberg is displayed online but it’s also visible as a window installation at the gallery’s storefront on Milwaukee Avenue. Those who pass by the gallery will see images and objects of the voting rights movement, sourced from Smithsonian archives. The display includes images of activists such as Shirley Chisholm, Ella Baker, and Malcolm X. In the online format, these images work in conversation with media from the present day. “Even before we knew it was going to be virtual, Ellen was excited about treating the windows as almost like two billboards along Milwaukee Avenue, which is probably one of the most trafficked roads in our city,” Houlihan says. “The piece was really transforming in real time in response to all of the different ups and downs of the past six months but it also has a firm grip on the history of the voting rights movement.”

Rothenberg says let’s switch it up! is a call to action against voter suppression and institutional racism. She drew inspiration from the disrupted primary elections in Georgia and Wisconsin earlier this year. “I became interested in the relationship of voter suppression in current conditions and its relationship to historic struggles in the civil rights movement and the anniversary of the 19th Amendment and women’s suffrage,” she says.

Houlihan says that Rothenberg’s piece, and her approach to creating it, is emblematic of the conceit of the exhibition as a whole. “Many of the artists look to the past, especially through archival images, to inform their understanding of the present,” she says.

The ACLU of Illinois, which previously partnered with Weinberg/Newton on an exhibition addressing the juvenile justice system, will host a virtual event series in cooperation with “Anthem” that will give participants the chance to hear from people working on the ground to address the issues the art raises. The next event in the series will be a conversation between Chicago area artists and ACLU staff about the intersection of art and social activism and the challenges of working amid the pandemic. Weinberg says that participants will be able to actively engage with the events and ask questions, just as they would in person.

Thanks to the virtual format, the “Anthem” audience isn’t limited to those who can make it to the gallery space in Chicago. Weinberg and Houlihan say the gallery team is upping their social media efforts to expand its viewership. Given the exhibition’s themes, Weinberg says he hopes it will reach audiences in battleground states, where the risk of voter suppression is higher than it is in Illinois.

And although “Anthem” was designed to coincide with the weeks leading up to the November election, it will be visible online and in the gallery storefront through December 19. Rothenberg hopes the themes she presents in her piece will resonate with viewers even after ballots have been cast. “I think initially I’m hoping that the work will be a call to action and get people actively engaged in the election. We are all in this state of anticipation around the election,” she says. “The materials are compelling and I don’t think it’s just a momentary interest. [The 2020 election] is another round of an ongoing struggle.”

Weinberg says that prior to 2020, he never imagined hosting a virtual exhibit at the gallery. But in looking ahead to its post-pandemic future, he hopes to continue to embrace the advantages of working online. “When the day comes that we can have several hundred people in the gallery, I think there is a fair chance that we would want to have that same exhibit online in one form or another,” he says. “This is an opportunity to grow.”   v