As it did for almost every student, faculty and staff member, the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic has rapidly changed the course of this semester for the University of Virginia art museums.
Instead of exhibition galleries filled with students and community members, live tours for classes and faculty and all sorts of workshops and events, staff at The Fralin Museum of Art at UVA and the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection were suddenly looking at museums full of amazing art, with no one to enjoy it.
And so they got busy, doing what artists and art lovers do best: getting creative.
“In times of crisis, we usually do everything we can to keep the museum open, because we know how important it is for people to have a space for those contemplative experiences, a space where they can feel connected to something larger than themselves,” said Matthew McLendon, J. Sanford Miller Family Director of The Fralin. “This time, though, the best way we could serve our community was to close our doors, so we immediately turned our attention to new online offerings that could provide some of those connections.”
Now, with a few clicks on the museums’ websites and social media accounts, you can access a wide variety of art, from a video tour weaving through 112 intricately carved memorial poles created by Aboriginal Australian artists to talks and tutorials with museum staff, student docents and guest artists.
“The technology that we have today makes it possible to stay connected and continue our work in a way that wasn’t possible when we first opened 20 years ago,” Kluge-Ruhe Director Margo Smith said. “We are staying connected with artists on the other side of the world and learning a lot about what is possible and how we can build those connections. I expect these lessons will carry over after the pandemic.”
A Video Tour Through a Surreal, Beautiful Forest
At the end of January, The Fralin and Kluge-Ruhe collaborated on a special exhibition, “The Inside World: Contemporary Aboriginal Australian Memorial Poles.” Presented in The Fralin’s large upstairs gallery, the exhibition features 112 memorial poles created by 55 artists from Aboriginal communities in the tropical northern region of Australia known as Arnhem Land. Strikingly set off by black walls, the intricately carved and painted poles traditionally housed the bones of the deceased and today are works of art.
Scheduled to run through May, the exhibition was only open to the public for about a month before the pandemic hit. However, The Fralin and Kluge-Ruhe have now produced a cinematic half-hour video tour of the exhibition, led by Kluge-Ruhe curator Henry Skerritt and directed by The Fralin associate academic curator Aimee Hunt. Check out the trailer here.
They designed the full video tour to help students and faculty members who intended to use the exhibition in their courses, and to provide a thorough overview for the public. It is also, Skerritt said, a nice reminder of the full course of human history and all of its challenges.
“I take some small solace in the fact that Aboriginal culture has been around for more than 60,000 years,” he said. “We are going to get through this, and we are fortunate here at UVA to have amazing works of art that are true masterpieces, and that will still be masterpieces whenever we reopen.”
Resources for Classes – and Newly Minted Homeschoolers
Typically, faculty members across Grounds incorporate exhibitions at The Fralin and Kluge-Ruhe into their coursework, bringing students to view and discuss art that relates to what they are learning.
Though they cannot do that in person now, staff at both museums want to make sure those connections remain strong. They are all working directly with faculty members in many different departments to share resources, join videoconferenced classes and connect students to art as much as possible. One of the artists from “The Inside World” exhibition, Wukun Wanambi, even joined students for an online class.
“Our primary mission as an academic museum is to help further the study of art around the University,” McLendon said. “We have found that professors are hungry for great content for their online courses, and we are excited to help them in new ways. We are trying to provide the next-best thing to actually being in the museum.”
Not only are college professors searching for great online content; but many parents-turned-homeschool teachers are as well. Staff at The Fralin are developing a variety of K-12 resources to stay in touch with specific communities served by their programs, and provide parents with activities they and their children can do at home. Tour coordinator Riley McCall is developing ways for UVA student mentors to stay connected to their “buddies” at Charlottesville-area Boys and Girls Clubs. Docent coordinator Emily Lazaro has piloted a virtual teaching program, “Zoom into Art,” in which student docents and staff facilitate conversations about works of art over videoconference. This program will be widely available to teachers and families starting in May.
Kluge-Ruhe also offers tours on its website and YouTube channel, and an Aboriginal Art 101 Guide to Indigenous Australian art and culture, written in collaboration with Indigenous museum professionals Nici Cumpston, of the Art Gallery of South Australia, and Jilda Andrews, of the National Museum of Australia. Archives of past exhibitions, residencies and other collaborations are also available.
Social Media Breaks and Breakthroughs
Social media platforms, especially visually driven platforms like Instagram, have been an important resource for both museums.
On its Instagram and Facebook accounts, The Fralin is posting images of works from the museum’s permanent collection, along with information and stories about each one. Series like “Meditation Mondays” pair an image from the collection with a short meditation or mindfulness activity, encouraging people to take a quick break from the stresses we are all experiencing. The museum is also sharing a series of posts about staff members and docents, to give people a glimpse of the men and women behind the work. Additional content focused on the collection and created by The Fralin staff and UVA professors will be shared in the coming weeks.
“We are trying to share something uplifting that is happening at the museum, or the work that our staff is doing, so that people can get a sense of who we are,” McLendon said.
Kluge-Ruhe Instagram and Facebook accounts have been sharing short “flat-chat” videos – quick interviews or overviews – with curators and guest artists, which are also available on YouTube. Student curators have created videos, including two in Spanish. Staff are planning longer video offerings, after a survey indicated that followers were interested in discussions and lectures they could watch at home.
The museum is also using its platform to highlight the threat that COVID-19 poses to Indigenous communities in Australia, and how people can help.
“Many in these communities have pre-existing conditions that could make them more vulnerable to COVID-19,” education and program manager Lauren Maupin said. “This is, and will be, a tough time for artists, especially in Indigenous communities where art is often the only nongovernmental source of income, and it is really important to us to honor our continuing commitment to these communities, share their work and stay connected with them now more than ever.”