6 minute read

Moving Pictures

The Resilience of St. Louis’ Art Museums

Written by Rob Levy

At a time when as many as one-third of the country’s museums risk permanent closure due to the coronavirus, the exploration, discovery, and reflection fostered by our local art museums has been sorely missed. Offering a refuge for contemplation and creativity, their absence during the pandemic has left a void for the visual arts and forced their staffs to rapidly adapt to maintain a connection with their patrons. Overcoming the stagnation of the lockdown by reopening, many of these prized jewels of our city are planning for the unknown by implementing new practices. Their innovation and resilience serve as another reminder that once again, the arts community is showing us the way.

Closing their doors to the public in March and reopening in July, the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis pivoted to deliver robust programming during the COVID-19 crisis. Embracing new technologies to engage their audience, CAM regularly generated new content through their website and social media, opened their archives for online access, and offered art sessions to students through ArtReach, an educational program offering online courses to Vashon and other K-12 affiliated schools. CAM also partnered with Tim Youd for The Tunnel: Retyped, a performance project in which he typed the William Gass novel live on video stream from his garage throughout the month of May.

Executive Director Lisa Melandri commented on how the pandemic has affected CAM. “I think it has taught us a lot, and we’re still learning. We’ve achieved real progress in getting more people into the museum and we have discovered new ways to connect with audiences. The coronavirus made us understand our need to reimagine how we can fulfill our mission in more ways for more people.”

CAM reopening in July 2020.

CAM reopening in July 2020.

When the doors of the Saint Louis Art Museum closed, patrons were unsure of what lay ahead. The museum adopted a virtual platform that included the “Object of the Day,” an overwhelmingly popular program that continues even with the museum reopened. In May, the museum collaborated with Venture Café for an interactive program featuring Ethiopian artist Elias Sime. SLAM also revised their children’s programming to accommodate larger virtual audiences. Additionally, they launched the “At Home Film Series,” an interactive program supplemented with a 30 minute watch party, artmaking activities, movie trivia and Spotify playlists to set the party mood at home. They also transferred their immensely popular Wee Wednesdays and Wee Weekends programming online. Upon reopening, SLAM extended the Millet and Modern Art special exhibition into the fall.

The Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum features a reconfigured northwest entrance and a striking 34-foot-tall polished stainlesssteel facade.The pleated surface reflects the Washington University campus and sky. Photo by Joshua White/JWPictures.com

The Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum features a reconfigured northwest entrance and a striking 34-foot-tall polished stainlesssteel facade.The pleated surface reflects the Washington University campus and sky. Photo by Joshua White/JWPictures.com

Director of Learning and Engagement Amanda Thompson Rundahl spoke on how SLAM was affected by the pandemic. “When we closed, we were quickly faced with the realization that we were working in a new environment and had to decide, relatively quickly, what we could do in this moment and what we could accomplish with the resources that we have. We also had to work out what we could offer that would be relevant and welcomed by our audiences.” She added, “Right now, we need to have a level of comfort with the unknown. That is not a natural state most large institutions want to be in. We are having to think differently about what we might do, how we might do it and when we might do it.”

Although COVID-19 forced the Pulitzer Arts Foundation and other local institutions to remain closed, the Kemper Art Museum at Washington University stayed the course virtually, offering online classes and presenting virtual tours of their permanent collection in English and Chinese. The Kemper also presented lectures and boosted their social media presence by adding a YouTube channel, allowing new audiences further access to lockdown programming.

SLAM is open. Guests follow safety protocols as outlined based on guidelines from the city’s Department of Health, the CDC, and other state and regional authorities.

SLAM is open. Guests follow safety protocols as outlined based on guidelines from the city’s Department of Health, the CDC, and other state and regional authorities.

Museum Director Sabine Eckmann addressed how virtual programming has become a vital component for The Kemper’s response to the pandemic. “Right now, there is a paradigmatic change in how we engage with visitors. Until we get back to normal, we will definitely continue programming through virtual engagement.” She added, “One of the side effects of this pandemic is that it helps us in positive ways, to slow down and explore and learn more about what we can do physically in our galleries and virtually. I think that is a good thing.”

Despite being mostly outdoors, Laumeier Sculpture Park also experienced adverse effects from the pandemic. “Overall, attendance has been down even though people can come and enjoy the outdoor space,” noted Executive Director Lauren Ross. “We normally have very robust public programs, but unfortunately those have been curbed or put on hold since March. That has had a huge impact on us and for people who would normally come to engage with us.” However, as Ross notes, the park faced challenges in pivoting online. “We learned that even though we intertwined our live and virtual experiences, not all of our programming translates well into a virtual realm.”

Laumeier

Laumeier

Looking to maintain engagement during lockdown, they developed “Laumeier Online,” which provided viewers at home with online activities. They also made the difficult decision to proceed with their summer camp program, starting several weeks later at reduced capacity and with adherence to CDC guidelines. They also are presenting two new works, Donald Odita’s From Periphery to Center, which features five commissioned flags at the park, with an additional 10 at Jeske Sculpture Park in Ferguson, and Time Fork, an architecturally scaled Augmented Reality installation created by media artist Van McElwee.

Looking forward, CAM’s Melandri commented on the role of visual art in a post-COVID-19 world. “Artists have always been essential in helping us understand our world. They show us who we are and where we are and are always among the first to interpret our current events. Artists give us ways to process our times by shedding new light and sharing new perspectives. Their vision is not only incredibly salient but transformational. There will be extraordinary work that comes out of this. I also am optimistic about the power of art and the positive experiences of museums as places to be with art. Nothing is going to be easy, but we are all learning how to create meaningful engagement with art and artists through a pandemic in new ways.”

Ross also noted how visual art will shape that world. “I think that outdoor experiences will continue. Certainly, audiences are going to feel safer being outdoors and those of us who are able to produce work outdoors will certainly continue to take advantage of that ability. Also, with everything that is going on socially and culturally in our country, artists are really interested in being involved in delivering compelling and relevant art to public spaces.”

With audience growth at the forefront of their programming efforts, St. Louis’ art and design institutions are acclimating to the tides of rapid change sweeping across our cultural landscape. Responding with revamped interactive programming, they are reshaping engagement by harnessing the creative spirit of the arts to bring communities together.