What’s it like to be an undergrad this year? The social experience of college is as important as the academic content, but many students are attending class online from their dorm rooms, and most social groups and events are on hold. In the second installment of our “Tales from Campus” series, Hillary Brown, Director of Communications at the Georgia Museum of Art, tells us how she and her colleagues are helping alleviate stress and isolation on and off campus with creativity and an open heart.
–Elizabeth Merritt, VP Strategic Foresight and Founding Director, Center for the Future of Museums, American Alliance of Museums.
Adapting to COVID-19, especially on a university campus, has been a continual process of figuring out how to help people connect with art. Sometimes that’s meant redefining what “art” means to an art museum. Other times it’s meant digging into what “connect” could mean. As part of a land-grant university that’s always been deeply embedded in its high-poverty hometown, the Georgia Museum of Art at the University of Georgia didn’t want to retreat into its building, closing off free access to art at a time when, in some ways, people need it most. While the museum was closed to the public, for five months, we moved our Yoga in the Galleries and Morning Mindfulness programs online and upped their frequency. Signing up on Zoom allowed attendees to participate live and for free from their own spaces, moving their bodies slowly, breathing and taking a break from ruminative thinking. It also let us continue to pay the teachers, putting some funds back into our local community for people who needed them. Even after reopening, we’ve continued those programs online because they attracted a larger audience that way and because we made a commitment to avoid in-person synchronous events at least through the end of 2020 and likely beyond, in an effort to reduce risk.
Like many other museums, we reopened slowly, with timed ticketing, buckets of hand sanitizer, instructions about social distancing, and masks for everyone. We also had to think about how to reach college students as a specific part of our audience. UGA students, like students everywhere, are stressed out. Some of their classes are online, and most traditional social activities are a no go at the moment. Mostly, they seem to feel like they’re stuck in their dorm rooms, away from their families, with few social supports. Visiting the museum, like being out in nature, provides a safe way to escape a dorm room that might be a little over 200 square feet.
Our museum’s student association usually plans three Student Nights plus a pop-up artists’ market every year, with free food and drink, a live DJ, craft projects and time in the galleries, but given that those events usually attract several hundred young people, continuing unchanged seemed like a very bad idea. After some time thinking about it, the student association is doing its fall event as “Student Week,” instead, spreading the event out over four days. Students can participate in a scavenger hunt in the galleries (with prizes) and pick up free “to-go” art-making kits with all the materials and instructions they’ll need to create their own work of art at home.
Another long-time event that we adapted for the current reality is the annual España en Corto Spanish short-film festival, which we organize with UGA’s department of Romance languages. It’s coming up in a few days as I write (and will be done by the time this post is published ), so fingers crossed that everything works. We’re using Eventbrite to get people to register, then sending them both a private link to Vimeo, where they can watch the films for a limited time, and another link to Zoom for an event at which they’ll be able to ask the directors questions. We’re happy to have figured out a way not only to continue to hold the event but to expand it by allowing people to attend from their own spaces.
We’ve been giving lots of virtual tours to UGA classes, both undergraduate and graduate. Recently, our educators and a local artist I led a one-hour watercolor workshop for UGA law school students. The law school’s student affairs department has been desperately looking for ways for students to decompress and connect to each other outside of class. Many of these students are new to Athens and don’t know anyone, and the usual mixers and other in-person social events can’t happen this semester. One student who participated said, “I love that we didn’t have to read in advance for this. It was so relaxing.”
As far as in-person experiences are concerned, we have an outdoor dance performance inspired by an exhibition coming up in a couple of weeks, which should be a safe way for people to gather. We’re lucky to have a large quad right outside our door, which we share with the university’s art and music schools as well as its Performing Arts Center. That quad, which features a large sculpture by Beverly Pepper in its middle, should provide a great venue for “Stairs, Chairs & Squares,” a playful site-specific dance piece created entirely over Zoom as a collaboration among the museum, UGA’s department of dance and Cornfield Dance Company. Inspired by the exhibition “The Art of Seating: 200 Years of American Design,” the performance will feature a movable set of nine red chairs that the nine female performers dance on, cartwheel over and generally use to expand their material. The socially distanced audience will be able to watch from any viewpoint in the quad and is encouraged to move around as the dancers change their locations. We see it as a way not only to collaborate with other departments on campus and with students, but also as a way to bring what’s inside our walls out into the air.
A less picturesque but equally valuable outdoor space is our covered parking area, which sits right under the galleries, illuminated by light wells that go all the way through the building. That’s made it a good space for some studio art classes from the nearby Lamar Dodd School of Art, which have been able to set up for still-life painting and critique in a safer environment than an indoor classroom. UGA’s Community Music School has requested its use for a back-up performance location next month, in case of rain (their fair-weather plan is to use the quad). Similarly, we’ve offered up spaces indoor and outdoor to Hugh Hodgson School of Music students who need to practice. As we haven’t been using our 200-seat auditorium for events, those students can sign up for slots to use its good acoustics to practice a wide variety of instruments. In between sessions, we run a HEPA filter for an hour to make sure the air is as clean as possible for the next student.
Mostly, we’re continuing to approach new kinds of programming in the same open-minded open-hearted way we always do. We’re here to serve, and we’re proud of our new efforts in that arena.
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