Gallery experiences go virtual at the USF Contemporary Art Museum

Remember when you could easily spend a day wandering an art museum or an evening at a local theater -- a time when you were physically present with the art and the artists in your community?

A year after COVID interrupted our lives and made going out and about with friends and family anything but routine, Tampa Bay Area arts institutions persevere. As they always do. But when a deadly virus forces performance spaces and gallery doors to close altogether or limit attendance -- how do artists go on creating, performing, and reaching their communities? How do arts institutions survive? How has the interaction and relationship among art, artists, and appreciative audiences changed, in some cases forever?

83 Degrees reached out to the USF Contemporary Art Museum, the Tampa City Ballet, and the Florida Orchestra to learn how they are adapting, evolving, surviving, and, hopefully, thriving. Below is the first in a three-part series.
Christian Viveros-Fauné, Curator at Large for the USF Contemporary Art Museum (CAM), describes CAM's very first virtual exhibition, Life During Wartime: Art in the Age of Coronavirus, as an exercise in "building the plane while you fly it."

Planning an exhibition in a gallery that is closed to the public, with no physical space to place the art, and featuring work from dozens of artists spread across the globe who are responding in real-time to a record-shattering global health crisis while simultaneously facing challenges created by myriad pandemic-related access barriers? Viveros-Fauné and USF CAM's New Media Curator and Technology Manager Don Fuller -- who handled the technical aspects of Life in Wartime -- might well be the Wright Brothers.

Life During Wartime went into development when coronavirus closed CAM's doors last spring. Nearing one year later, CAM's physical galleries are open by reservation-only to USF students and staff but remain closed to the public. 

"We realized pretty early on that we have to be not just flexible, but innovative within the envelope of our means. We're not MOMA or The Whitney or even the biggest museum in Tampa, but that, I think, can be a great advantage. … The institutions that have had the roughest time during COVID are precisely those with big budgets and bureaucracy, where it can take weeks to get a decision made. We're built differently. In the event where we're living through a crisis, that's been an advantage," Viveros-Fauné says.

USF CAM's virtual solution, he says, piloted an innovative, click-through "essay-style" exhibition with Life During Wartime

"This is a hybrid. It's a magazine, it's a YouTube video, it's a podcast, it's a set of images -- it's a photographic essay; it's a painting essay."

Viveros-Fauné notes that an unexpected perk of the virtual format is social distance itself:

"At an opening, people are paying more attention to who's walking in the door. It's a social event where you're often talking right past the artwork. But when you do it within the envelope of a Zoom conversation, what happens is: the conversation revolves around artists and the art. We were surprised that not only did people tune in, but their comments were often along the lines of, 'Wow it's so refreshing!’ -- because suddenly we're really talking about the artwork," Viveros-Fauné says.

Life During Wartime ran June through December 2020. Thanks to its virtual format, the exhibition and its nine virtual Artist Conversations remain archived and in large part accessible online. 

"Art doesn't take a vacation. When it does, you're in some significant amount of trouble," Viveros-Fauné says. 

"During the Blitz, the Museum Director Kenneth Clark did something particularly smart with the National Gallery in London. After having taken great treasures out of museums and having them buried inside a mine in Wales, he began bringing major pieces out one at a time and holding lectures inside the museum. You'd have hundreds of thousands of people come for these viewings --  normal lay folk. This was a rallying cry for the people. It provided not only a sense of normalcy but also meaning in crisis. Because that's what art can do. 

Part of our thinking with Life During Wartime was that we'd be able to do some of that. I think that in more than a few instances the artists came through in that way: Their messages sailed hope for people," Viveros-Fauné says.

USF CAM upgrades to offer 3D gallery tours in Spring, 2021 exhibitions

As for the future? Viveros-Fauné predicts virtual exhibitions are here to stay. Much like the Wright Brothers' primitive glider planes took flight in the early 1900s and instantaneously reinvented how we access different geographies -- so might the virtual art museum evolve: a shift that is, at once, both rapid and permanent.

"It's clear that as institutions open up physically, they will have to continue to keep up a web presence that is parallel in activity, effort, and output to what they do physically inside institutions. The era of blockbusters is over. We're not going to feel safe in May 2021 -- nor, probably, in 2022 or 2023. What seemed like something ancillary or parallel is our new reality," he says.

For USF CAM's Spring, 2021 exhibitions, the museum's curators and tech team worked closely with the USF Access 3D Lab to scan the CAM gallery space and launch a resilient new era in museum accessibility that reaches beyond gallery walls.

When Marking Monuments and Still Here: The Griffith J. Davis Photographs and Archives in Context opened inside of CAM for USF students and staff this January, they were the first exhibitions to also launch online in an immersive virtual format. 

"We're trying to mine the resources of the university and really expand the way that people are able to access the content," says CAM's Curator of Public Art and Social Practice, Sarah Howard, who curates the Marking Monuments exhibition. 

"When we start to think about not being able to meet in person, but still wanting to engage with audiences, it sort of shifts your thinking as a curator. All of the sudden, the normal physical limitations of a space become wide open," she adds.

The virtual USF Contemporary Art Museum is navigable, now, by clicking through on a computer or mobile device web browser, or by using a VR headset -- meaning that, while the general public is unable to step inside the gallery space: USF will bring the entire gallery into our homes.

"Our metrics about how we judge the success of an exhibition are approached in multiple ways: Are we working with artists to make new, important work? Are we getting a good audience and increasing the number of people who are seeing the work? Is the audience engaged? We want to be here, always, to create new work, to present new work, and to have an impact in the community -- to always be creating conversations," Fuller says.

"We're providing the opportunity for an expanded audience we might not otherwise have reached -- and the hope is to keep those kinds of exhibitions going, even when we go back to 'normal'." 

Marking Monuments and Still Here: The Griffith J. Davis Photographs and Archives in Context, ran through March 6, 2021.

Next up? Out to Pasture.

Visit the virtual galleries here.

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