Deep into the seventh week of quarantine, we are feeling a crazed, not only by the current situation, but also by the looming weight of what is to come in the next days, weeks, months…(I stop myself from writing the word “years” because an imploding brain doesn’t do a writer any good.) It isn’t just individuals who are faltering. Businesses and organizations are having a tough time reimagining life during and after this crisis. In the last few weeks, however, I have interviewed people who are working for non-profit arts organizations in Wilmington, and through this interaction, I am convinced that the arts will be the light that leads us all forth out of this dark spring.
Most recently I talked with Saralyn Rosenfield, Director of Engagement at the Delaware Art Museum. As you might imagine, the word “engagement” in her job title has taken on a new meaning. Saralyn was visiting with family in Texas when COVID-19 began to change the business landscape—seemingly overnight. After a four-day visit, she came home to half-empty offices and closed doors at the Delaware Art Museum. A few days later, on March 22, Governor Carney announced the stay-at-home order. Rosenfield is now working from home in south Philly. I asked her if the museum has had to lay off any employees.
“We have our full staff. No layoffs. We applied for the first round of PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) loans and received it. Not only have we been able to pay for our staff, but we were also able to fully pay our studio instructors who were scheduled to teach classes this spring,” Saralyn told me.
So now what? What does a work-from-home scenario for an art museum entail? For Saralyn and the rest of the staff it means figuring out a way to fulfill the museum’s mission virtually. That mission is “to connect people to art, offering an inclusive and essential community resource that through its collections, exhibitions, and programs, generates creative energy that sustains, enriches, empowers, and inspires.” In addition, the museum has an impact statement which charges the museum to use art to “inspire individuals, bring people together, and foster greater quality of life in the community.” Nowhere in the mission does it say that these things must be done at a particular address or that they must even be done in-person. Departments within the museum, such as the curatorial department and the marketing department, are now coordinating to reimagine ways to implement these directives to link people with art and each other at a time when the public is desperate for those connections.
The staff immediately considered what resources they had online and what more they could add. Some of the collections were already online which was helpful. But what of their programming? Swiftly, they added a virtual story time to take the place of the popular “Glory of Stories” hour offered for pre-schoolers in the museum every Friday at 10:30 AM. Staff has also reached out to the studio arts instructors to see what kind of instructional videos they can feature for those who are stuck at home and want to use schedule easements to participate in arts and crafts activities they never had time for before the quarantine. Through Zoom, the museum was able to continue their gallery lunchtime series, Art is Tasty, in which people bring a lunch, eat in community, and have discussion on a particular work of art in the collection. And Friday evenings at 6:30 PM the museum is now offering Performance Series Watch Parties on their Facebook feed. Members of the community can log in to see the performance and chat with the performers and other viewers. Performances range from jazz and R&B to algorithmic composition with audio-visual correspondence. (I’m putting a special shout-out for my neighbor and musician William Fields who will be performing his algorithmic improvisation from his home on May 8th. Go, Bill!) Past performances are also available on the museum’s website and Facebook page.
“What is neat about it is that when you have these concerts on Facebook, the community comes together online. We get the same people who show up for our live performances. They get to interact, catch up and dialog with one other,” Saralyn said.
Beyond the Performance series, the Delaware Art Museum features other concerts. Hot Breakfast! (fist in the air) features 15-minute coffee break concerts on Facebook. (Would that change the fist-pumping exclamation to “Hot Coffee”? this blogger wonders.) In the days ahead, look for information to register and access a special event curator talk followed by a concert by piano quartet Pyxis happening on May 21st.
Saralyn hints at more programming for the future. An online watercolor class? Guest speakers with online INteraction? Perhaps a cocktail hour with the curator in which people mix up their own drinks and engage online about a collection with a curator in a deeper, more personal way than perhaps they could even in the museum setting.
I asked Saralyn about how the museum is planning for upcoming months when the stay-at-home order is lifted. Like most of us, they are in a wait-and-see holding pattern (the aforementioned days, weeks, and months). This means that the museum has to have a Plan A and Plan B—and check the financial spreadsheet for both contingencies. For instance, the museum has a robust summer arts program for kids that is up in the air. A lot depends on what the state allows in terms of summer day camps. This leads to even more questions. Will students even go back to school in the fall? Will they be taking field trips to the museum or requiring remote learning opportunities? The museum is working with educators for a unified approach.
Curators must also consider the proposed exhibition schedule. They are hoping to extend the current exhibition Layered Extraction, featuring local artists Helen Mason and Margo Allman which opened just as the doors of the museum were closing. Some future exhibitions may have to be rescheduled or rerouted—in the case of an upcoming traveling exhibition that was planned for the fall. The staff wants people to be able to see the art in person, but only when it is safe to do so.
“It is imperative that we continue to serve the community but do it in a smart way. We need keep people safe—with special consideration for our older patrons—while fulfilling our mission and sustaining ourselves.”
It is a measured approach but one for which we Delawareans can be grateful. Compared to what is going on with art museums of the same size in other states, The Delaware Art Museum is “ahead of the curve maintaining staff and programming.”
I, for one, plan on taking advantage of our wINdfall.