With the world’s museums and galleries shutting their doors due to COVID-19, international hotspots from the Louvre to the Smithsonian have been offering 360-degree tours and virtual exhibits. With the click of a mouse, you can see Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceilings or take a long look at Rembrandt’s “The Return of the Prodigal Son” at St. Petersburg’s State Hermitage Museum.
Here in Vancouver, our own museums and galleries are also finding digital ways to carry on. Everything from live-stream curator conversations to social-media spotlights on collection pieces are showing that art and artifacts can reach far beyond walls.
Over at the Vancouver Art Gallery, staff have launched the new Art Connects series. Every Tuesday at 1:30 p.m. and Friday at 4:30 p.m., the gallery live-streams interactive conversations through Zoom, featuring guests from local and international art scenes. Everyone is invited to join. “It’s definitely about maintaining visibility with our audience and engaging with our audiences in ongoing and meaningful ways,” Diana Freundl, the VAG’s interim chief curator and associate director, tells the Straight. “Art Connects is about taking the existing programs and artwork of the gallery and putting it on a digital platform.”
The first installment, on March 31, found curators Grant Arnold and Mandy Ginson taking questions and leading a virtual tour of images in the now-closed exhibit The Tin Man Was a Dreamer: Allegories, Poetics and Performances of Power. Another on April 3 riffed on freestyling.
The next installment on Friday (April 10) at 4:30 p.m., Freundl joins artist Howie Tsui to discus the artistic and curatorial decisions behind Howie Tsui: Retainers of Anarchy—organized and circulated by the VAG in 2017 and recently on view on tour at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Florida. The work is a 25-metre, hand-drawn animation that threads together the social and political realities of past and present-day Hong Kong. (Register and find out more info here; you can submit questions via the Zoom Q&A function.) In a display of how virtual events can personalize and deepen the experience, Tsui will give a tour of his back-yard nursery and extensive bonsai-tree pracice.
So far the response has been strong, says Freundl. “At the talks when the gallery has an opening, the audience caps at 100, whereas 300-plus attended the last webinair,” she says. “That’s twice the size, and you can have visiting guests while there are travel restrictions.” (You can register for Art Connects via the VAG’s Zoom channel.)
Clearly, the pandemic shutdown is pushing the gallery to explore new platforms that may last long after the virus is sent packing.
“It definitely creates opportunities for innovation for sure,” Freundl says. “It’s in that testing space right now.…How can you create a global audience without having to travel?”
Elsewhere, the museum has redeployed its curators to social-media spaces, where they spotlight works in the collection. It’s also using those channels to prompt the public to activate their inner artist. A recent Instagram post of an Emily Carr work encouraged viewers: “Take your mind off the news and pull out a pencil or some brushes! Draw a tree inspired by #EmilyCarr’s forest sketch. Tag us in the results! #DrawingWithFriends.”
Online, at Google Arts & Culture, audiences can also take a fuller tour of a past exhibit at the VAG: Douglas Coupland’s seminal 2014 retrospective, called everywhere is anywhere is anything is everything. And the gallery has put up hundreds of talks and other content on its Vimeo channel.
Consider these just the first of several initiatives.“We’re also looking more behind the scenes at the mounting of an exhibition, or insider reasoning behind difficulties of mounting an exhibition,” Freundl says.
Out by UBC, the Museum of Anthropology has launched a wide-ranging effort called #MOAFromHome, a riff on the worldwide #MuseumFromHome movement.
“The first order of business was to look at what was available, and our collections were already online,” says Bonnie Sun, senior marketing and communications manager at the museum. “We probably took that for granted before. Now we realize it’s the bedrock of what we do. You can look at almost 50,000 objects online.”
Website visitors can go in and search MOA’s vast collection (here) by category—places, peoples, cultures, categories, or time period—or by keyword. “Gameboard” yields a 1906 Inuit-carved tusk cribbage board depicting intricate hunting and village scenes, and “ashtray” finds an argillite-and-abalone Haida-carved model of a canoe, with an eagle perched on its edge.
Now the team is spotlighting pieces like these and more on social media. Recent educational posts have featured a Beau Dick transformation mask with a brief history of the late artist, and writeups on standouts from Playing With Fire: Ceramics of the Extraordinary, the exhibit that had to be closed down in mid-March.
Like the VAG, MOA finds itself redefining what we commonly think of as a curator’s role, and permanently shifting the way we can appreciate objects that might not see the light of day in a brick-and-mortar-based display. “If there aren’t full-blown exhibitions, are there mini-ways to take their [the curators’] research and knowledge and the relationships they hold and put them together through a digital platform?” asks Sun.
The facility has already built an extensive YouTube channel where you can check out everything from a mini-documentary trailer for Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun’s past Unceded Territories exhibit to short profiles of its shop artists, like Haisla-Heiltsuk painter Paul Windsor.
Now, Sun says, the team is also looking at live webinairs and recorded or live-stream artist-led workshops for the future. The MOA has already moved a previously scheduled poetry workshop with Jillian Christmas to the virtual realm, on Zoom on April 19 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.: For National Poetry Month, the local spoken word artist leads a webinair about word play, using MOA's worldwide collections as inspiration (free with registration here).
These days, there is time and opportunity for innovations like these, with a view to extending the museum’s reach.
“Sometimes I like to joke that the MOA is better-known abroad than at home,” Sun observes. “We’ve noticed online that a lot of interest in our Northwest Coast collections comes from people overseas. Live content means we can deliver it further.”