As the doors to museums across the county remain shuttered, institutions are finding new ways to stay connected with the community as they transform themselves from brick-and-mortar organizations to virtual museums.
The transitions have been a crash course in online resources and have resulted in creative programming that is available to more people than ever.
“Art has always been a response during crises. Many great masterworks have been created due to crises and after crises,” said Roxana Velasquez, executive director of the San Diego Museum of Art in Balboa Park. “It is our duty, our creed, to be helpful in this very frightening situation. Art helps. It is essential to be connected.”
Apps, tweets and Instagram and Facebook feeds have become the lifelines to community. What was once a way to get a younger audience involved is now a challenge to reach older patrons. From virtual museum visits, to livestream lectures and craft projects, museum staffs are ramping up offerings to keep their members engaged and find new followers. And much of it is free. A connection to the internet is often all that is needed to tap into the creative wealth available at museums, not only here, but across the country and the world.
We checked in on some local institutions to see what they have planned as they shift focus.
The novel coronavirus outbreak canceled the “live” aspect of the museum’s biggest fundraiser of the year, Art Alive, where floral designers reproduce and reinterpret masterworks, and the annual fete, the Bloom Bash. The event, set for this weekend (it ends today),is instead going virtual with highlights from previous years, a look behind and scenes and a gardening project for the family.
“We are going to keep the spirit of it,” Velasquez said, adding “the support has been humbling.” Nearly everyone turned their tickets into donations.
It’s encouraging to see traffic up on social media sites, Velasquez said. One day, she said, the museum and its virtual rendition will work on parallel tracks and complement each other.
“We will be thinking differently,” she said. “We have to improve the way we share. It’s a fundamental part of our education. We can use online for wonderful things.”
The museum also halted a major exhibition on Rembrandt and Dutch masters. It is now looking to 2021, planning an exhibition on Henry Moore and Georgia O’Keeffe. “The two never met, but they had a lot in common,” Velasquez said.
Because the San Diego Art Institute’s mission is to represent regional — and especially underrepresented — artists, the organization is opening an online regional artists marketplace today where artists can sell items they are making in connection with the coronavirus outbreak.
“We’re a very small organization, down to four staff on reduced hours. We decided that while our goal is to build our audience and reach students, our primary goal is to advance artists,” said Jacqueline Silverman, the art institute’s executive director. “It really suits our mission of diversity.”
The artists, she said, will be carefully curated, many former exhibitioners. “You’ll know when you go there (the marketplace), it’ll be interesting and of quality,” Silverman said.
She envisions artists selling things such as masks, cards and T-shirts, but also occasionally a painting.
The staff is also planning a platform that will link collectors to artists’ websites and a virtual version of C-Note, the museum’s pop-up art sale where pieces range from about $100 to $300, an idea that was already in the works, but accelerated with the pandemic.
“We are helping our artists keep the light on,” Silverman said.
For the Lux Art Institute in Encinitas, this is a time for the staff to learn and experiment with online resources.
“Museums have a responsibility to extend their creativity, to be active and involved,” said executive director Andrew Utt.
He and his staff are working on keeping people engaged with the Lux while planning on how to represent the institution and art to the public in the long-term.
“Current digital offerings are a replacement for visitor hours,” he said.
But he also wants to focus on obtaining a broader reach, more diversity and inclusivity, as well as additional educational opportunities that promote critical thinking through permanent online avenues.
During a recent live instructional video by artist Michelle Montjoy, 16 percent of viewers were from outside California.
“That’s huge,” Utt said, and that wouldn’t have happened if the session would have been in person.
The Timken is continuing its outreach program to San Diego Juvenile Hall and the Naval Medical Center San Diego with virtual art lessons.
“It’s a connection to the outside world. They need it more than anybody,” said Megan Pogue, the museum’s executive director.
Those lessons, along with lectures and artwork, are also available to the public on museum’s YouTube channel.
“We created a YouTube channel and we’re putting an app together so we have all our content in one place,” Pogue said. “I had no idea we had the skillset that we could do this so quickly. What a great complement it is going to be with our physical location.”
The virtual museum will also serve the Timken’s elderly members, she said, who sometimes miss events because of difficulty getting to the museum.
“We all have taken on new and different functions,” Pogue said. “We will be able to do more with the talent we have.”
“Having to revise the museum experience has expanded OMA’s definition of what a museum can be beyond the galleries without barriers,” said executive director Maria Mingalone.
The museum’s live-stream programming also has attracted people from around the country. The content, she said, is focused more on emotional responses to the crisis: empathy, healing and the experience of isolation.
“OMA is asking folks to reflect on the importance of the cultural community, and what it means to be a part of it,” she said.
For OMA, this online connection is here to stay.
“These new digital modalities will change the museum forever. They push the issue of accessibility to the forefront,” Mingalone said. “In the post-pandemic environment, it will move OMA to think differently when planning programs, and be more thoughtful to strike a balance between the in-person experience and digital touch points.”