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Tales from Campus: Radical Collaboration at the Nasher Museum

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

In today’s guest post, Wendy Hower, Director of Engagement & Marketing at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, describes how an outdoor art exhibition became a wide-reaching way to support students, faculty and the local community during the pandemic. Tales from Campus is an ongoing series of posts documenting how academic museums and galleries are helping their communities cope with COVID-19.
–Elizabeth Merritt, Vice President, Strategic Foresight and Founding Director, Center for the Future of Museum, American Alliance of Museums

DURHAM, N.C. — On a perfect 72-degree afternoon in September, two art museum staffers, an architect, a real estate developer, a dance festival director and a 3-year-old gathered on a sidewalk. Little Ana was asleep, long legs dangling from her mother’s arms. Six months into the COVID-19 pandemic, this felt normal: bringing children to meetings, conducting meetings outdoors, wearing face masks, standing 10 feet apart.

Beyond normal, we felt giddy! After eight years of collaboration between the Nasher Museum and the American Dance Festival, our meeting topic was unprecedented: installing art on the façade of the ADF studio.

“DON’T WORRY, WE’LL HOLD HANDS AGAIN.”

The work of art was a large window cling designed by nationally renowned artist Carrie Mae Weems, part of an outdoor exhibition and public awareness campaign called “RESIST COVID / TAKE 6!” The project emphasizes the disproportionate impact of the deadly virus on the lives of people of color, through large-scale banners and signs, posters, billboards and more. It was not virtual; it would be safe for visitors to see while the museum was closed to the public.

Back in July, the artist sent an email to her longtime friend, Nasher Museum Director Trevor Schoonmaker, to offer “RESIST COVID / TAKE 6!” to Duke. Right away, Trevor and the staff saw this as an opportunity to respond, through art, to both the pandemic and systemic racism in this country. “RESIST COVID / TAKE 6!” fit in beautifully with the museum’s collection, with its focus on Black artists.

For the first time, the Nasher Museum collaborated with two campus partners on an exhibition—Duke Arts, a campus initiative overseen by Vice Provost for the Arts John Brown, and Duke Health, which employs 19,000 people across many hospitals, labs and clinics.

Before COVID, we thought we knew community engagement. Chief Curator Marshall N. Price and I would meet with community leaders in advance of an exhibition. Over lunch, we would tell them about artists, show images, brainstorm ideas for programs, invite them to the opening event. During COVID, we took part in more than 55 Zoom meetings with potential partners, filling our calendars between July 30 and mid December. Each Zoom inspired more Zooms as colleagues sent us to more colleagues.

We met people we never knew before, on our own campus.

Through the fall and into the New Year, what started out as a couple of banners on the Nasher Museum’s exterior walls expanded to more than 40 locations around campus and our surrounding town of Durham. An outdoor exhibition meant to keep the museum relevant while closed to the public grew quickly into a wide-reaching means of supporting students, faculty and the local community during the pandemic.

“I feel like we’re putting the plane together,” Marshall told me, more than once, “while we’re flying.”

September 17 was a big day. Katy Clune, director of arts communication at Duke, joined me on Zoom with staff from Duke’s Center for Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation. We talked for an hour and our hearts began to soar! Jayne O. Ifekwunigwe, Ph.D., assistant director of the center, and her team wanted to develop an interactive component, gathering responses from visitors in person and virtually. They created a questionnaire with such prompts as, “What do you value now that you did not value before COVID-19?” The CTRHT team will analyze and interpret the responses.

The window cling was installed at the ADF studio on November 16. But ADF Director Jodee Nimerichter wanted a deeper engagement with “RESIST COVID / TAKE 6!” Her beautiful idea: Call for submissions from North Carolina dancers to respond to the work through movement. Jodee selected 17 dancers who will perform seven dances (in solos, duets and ensembles) at various locations this winter. We will capture the dances on 1-minute videos for social media.

The exhibition expanded in large ways (two billboards and the huge glass façade of the Durham Station) and small (COVID-19 face masks designed by Carrie Mae Weems, printed by Durham-based Spoonflower and stitched by Andrea Carter of Ngozi Studio in Durham.)

Another highlight: North Carolina Arts in Action produced a video from their weekend dance program for children. This fall, 10- through 12-year-olds responded through movement to the banner “Don’t Worry, We’ll Hold Hands Again.”

Duke student Daphne Turan, as part of her Nasher internship, created an interactive Google map showing where people can safely view RESIST COVID / TAKE 6! from public sidewalks and pathways on the Duke campus.

In November and December, artist Bill Fick led crews of Duke staff and students to install “RESIST COVID / TAKE 6!” wheat-paste posters at five locations.

Duke Professor Mark Anthony Neal assigned 10 undergraduate students in his Rhythm & Blues class to create annotated playlists in response to “RESIST COVID / TAKE 6!”

Artist and photographer Phyllis B. Dooney assigned “RESIST COVID / TAKE 6!” to the MFA/EDA spring graduate seminar she is teaching this semester, Continuity and Change in the Documentary Arts.

One reason for the project’s success might be that Nasher Museum, Duke Arts and Duke Health logos are conspicuously missing from “RESIST COVID / TAKE 6!” We distributed 2,000 reusable grocery totes, 2,000 buttons, 5,000 stickers, 1,400 magnets, 300 church fans, 500 yard signs, 80 high end canvas totes and 1,000 bookmarks out into the community—with no trace of Duke on them. The art speaks for itself.

One experience stands out for me, because I crave in-person visits more than ever.

Joan Yabani, a self-described curator, writer and techie who also produces the Life-Size Coloring Book, is a lively Instagrammer. One recent afternoon, I realized I had not seen her in more than a year and texted her, asking if I might visit. “Hi Wendy! Happy New Year! This year has got to be 100x better haha!”

I drove about 12 miles from my house in Durham to Joan’s apartment overlooking a green park in Chapel Hill. She bounded down the stairs to meet me in the parking lot.

“Hiiiiiiiiiii!!!!!!!”

Despite her dark blue mask, I could see her eyes were crinkling into a big smile.

I gently tossed a black canvas tote on the pavement in front of her and stepped back to a safe distance. Joan reached inside the tote to pull out the face mask wrapped in plastic.

“I know Andrea!” Joan said, excitedly. “She and I are from the same part of Ghana!”

Joan held up the tote to read the red lettering, all caps, on the front—words that would soon appear in her perfect Instagram post.

TO THE WORKERS OF THE WORLD:
THE FARMER
THE SHOPKEEPER
THE POSTAL WORKER
THE DELIVERY PERSON
THE BARBER AND THE BUTCHER
THE TEACHER AND THE SWEEPER
THE CLERK AND THE DOCTOR
THE NANNY AND THE NURSE
TO THE FRONTLINE WE SAY:
THANK YOU!
THANK YOU!
THANK YOU!

Follow this project online: https://nasher.duke.edu/exhibitions/resist-covid-take-six/

Instagram @NasherMuseum  

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