How COVID-19 has changed us: The Morean Arts Center, St. Pete

If the Morean Arts Center has learned anything from navigating through COVID times, it’s that patience and flexibility with a commitment to safety is the only way to stay afloat.

As an organization that encompasses a museum, free galleries, a hot shop, clay studio, and classrooms, hybrid alternatives to typically in-person experiences like summer camp and adult art classes make the most sense.
 
“From camp to the classroom, we had to think through challenges of engagement balanced with social distancing, and thinking about new protocols like sanitizing hands before working. With art and younger populations, it’s very common to be sharing tools and materials that you use. [Pre-COVID,] you would never think twice about letting someone borrow your tool -- you’re constantly sharing in that way,” says Robin McGowan, the Director of Marketing at the Morean Arts Center. “The thing that is most important is that everyone in the organization from top-down has an authentic investment in everyone’s safety. ... This sets the tone with how to interact with the public as well.”
 
While the early days of COVID were devoted to figuring out how to stay engaged with the community, the Morean team is now looking for longer-term solutions. The main question: How can we continue to deliver on our mission of bringing arts and culture to the community?
 
“We had to develop some mad skills with online delivery of art,'' McGowan says. "We were really blessed with gifted, amazing art instructors and a mother-daughter team, Sherrie and Maddie, that does our Saturdays at the Morean drop-in art experience with children ages 5-10. This is art for the whole community, so we created this online format for free.”
 
By Memorial Day weekend, the Morean had a soft opening to ease into in-person situations, test out new ideas, and make sure the teachers and staff felt confident. The first few weeks of kids’ summer camp took place in a virtual format, where boxes of craft supplies were provided in advance along with links to teacher instructions and Zoom discussions. After that, students and campers were welcomed in much smaller in-person groups and given different options for combining virtual and in-person experiences.
 
“Changes depended on the class. For ceramics classes, our potters’ wheels were spread out along the perimeter of the clay studio. In jewelry-making, there is already a certain culture of wearing protective gear so those classes were easily restarted. As weather tempers, we will be working on socially distanced studio sessions, and outdoor or evening classes. We have some prolific teachers who are doing team digital illustration classes online, and we have other instructors who are teaching painting online and haven’t done that before,” McGowan explains.
 
In an unexpected commemoration, Executive Director Howayda Affan celebrated the first anniversary of her position at the Morean just as COVID began to impact Florida.
 
“The Morean Arts Center has always been a resilient organization. Early on during the crisis, we tried to find a balance between survival today and success tomorrow. We were delighted to be able to provide a calm ad safe community since we reopened with brand new guidelines and limiting the number of students and visitors. When we reopened in-person summer camp, we served 350 students throughout the 10 weeks of summer. We sent communications in advance to let parents and kids know how to safely prepare, and we had great feedback about the program,” Affan says.
 
Though kids were at camp from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., the Morean had zero incidents regarding COVID in their classrooms. While the situations are vastly different, the Morean experiences could serve as a model as local schools reopen this fall.
 
The secret to success? Creating a touchless environment from how visitors move through the galleries with clearly marked traffic flow patterns to even cashless transactions. Masks are required in all of their buildings, and cleaning has been enhanced with electrostatic fogging in all areas and regular sanitization of surfaces throughout the day.

Even if visitors don’t feel comfortable visiting in-person, the Morean now boasts over 66 online experiences including classes, virtual tours, and more. With around 4,500 people from all over the world viewing their virtual experiences, the Morean plans keep hybrid interactions for the long haul to serve not just the local community, but the global arts community at large.
 
“Over its history, the Morean Arts Center has been built around accessibility, to provide a dynamic arts learning environment. The pandemic just expedited a range of experiences we were thinking about, so now we have all of these digital solutions from touchless visits to mobile tours,” Affan says. “From the very beginning, we realized any change we make now is going to strengthen the Morean for the future.”
 
To find out more about class offerings, visit the Morean Arts Center online.
 

Read more articles by Caitlin Albritton.

Caitlin Albritton is a freelance writer based in Tampa with a BFA from Savannah College of Art and Design and a MFA from Maryland Institute College of Art. When she's not looking at art throughout town, she can be found making it. You can keep up with her visual art on Instagram @caitlinalbritton or on her website. Visit her recent line of inlay “wearable paintings.”
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