Lam Sio Man

Bachelor's degree with a double major in Chinese and Art in Peking University. Master of Art and Administration in New York University. She has served in the Macao Cultural Affairs Bureau, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs and the Museum of Chinese in America, working as art administrator and curator. She is now working as an art educator and administrator in New York, as well as an independent curator and writer. 

The art of reusing and reusing art during the COVID-19 pandemic

06 2020 | issue39

As the COVID-19 pandemic hit the globe, medical resources and supplies have become increasingly in shortage internationally. As a result, industrial production lines had been converted and reused for producing medical supplies such as disinfectants, face masks and ventilators. Hotels are being used as quarantine centres. Even French luxury brand LVMH had converted its perfume production line to make sanitisers and other sterilising supplies. However, these supplies are not printed with LVMH’s logo.


The conversion and reuse of these production lines and business spaces remind us of the supply shortage during wartime. In World War II, American automaker General Motors’ production line was converted to manufacture weaponry and tanks. The American government called to its people to collect supplies like metal, paper and plastic to support the American army. Such conversion was everywhere, in Americans’ lifestyle, in households. Coats made for men were remade and became shoes and coats for women. Sometimes, disasters and crises could inspire people to be more creative and make use of limited resources.


During the COVID-19 outbreak, a number of art and cultural organisations that had suspended operation, especially performing arts organisations, have also been considering how to make use of their existing resources. At a time where it is impossible to deliver live performances offline, lots of performances and shows have been filmed and uploaded to the Internet, providing the audience with an alternative experience. Now there are a variety of dance performances, plays and concerts on the Internet, which allow users to watch for free. The audience somehow benefits from the pandemic.


Tim is the head of security at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. He would always end his tweet with “thanks, Tim send” as if he was writing a formal letter.


Reusing content is an easy tactic for the cultural and art industry to respond to the pandemic. Cultural and art organisations also need to reuse their personnel as resources dive sharply. One interesting case has been the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in the Oklahoma City of the United States. The museum’s head of security Tim was given an extra task that required him to run the museum’s social media. Tim is a new user of Twitter. He often made a joke of himself on Twitter because of the lack of experience with social media. Most of his tweets are funny to read. For example, Tim’s grandson tried to teach him to use a hashtag. And Tim typed hashtag on his tweets instead of using #. This won him more followers, turning him into an Internet influencer. The number of followers that the museum’s social media page had subsequently jumped from a couple thousand to over 200,000 in 15 days.


Similar to other businesses, reusing existing resources not only ensures continuity of operation but also keeps jobs for employees. Professional talents of the cultural and art industry had been hit the hardest by the pandemic. Many businesses in the west have to layoff a mass number of employees to cut cost. Even the Museum of Modern Art of New York, which has a foundation of over one billion dollars, had terminated its contracts with its entire education department staff in early April. It is uncertain whether these cultural organisations had considered the possibility of reusing and redistributing existing resources. As one of the educators whose contract had been terminated pointed out, education might be even more important when galleries are closed down.


Another meaningful discussion from the perspective of cultural professionals is whether art can be reused. Or in other words, can art become more useful during the pandemic? The answer might be disappointing. Artists might be able to make use of their creativity and create new content by reusing existing materials. But art itself is not profit-driven. This means that art is “useless” at nature. When it is “useless”, we can’t reuse it. In my opinion, the biggest function of art during the COVID-19 pandemic has been its ability to help people escape from heavy issues like societal and economic aftermath. Art is still “useless” as it has always been, and therefore cannot be reused for other meaningful purposes. But the uselessness of art provides us with the chance to catch our breath by escaping the anxiety and boredom that we suffer during the pandemic, offering us moments of peace.