The Art Museum of West Virginia University is typically a buzzing building. Open to the public on weekends and school groups during the week, the museum welcomes thousands of visitors a year to use art as a medium to better understand the world.
The Covid-19 Pandemic put an abrupt halt to the museum’s day-to-day operations. With campus closed, how does the museum reach its audiences? The staff had to get creative.
The museum applied for, and was awarded, support in two phases from the Bridge Ahead Initiative at Art Bridges, a foundation established by philanthropist Alice Walton.
Art Bridges partners with museums of all sizes and locations to provide financial and strategic support for exhibition development, collection loans and programs designed to engage new audiences. As a foundation, Art Bridges funds projects that inspire deeper relationships between arts organizations and their communities, develop expanded relationships built on inclusivity and respect, and encourage meaningful personal connections that lead to stronger, more vibrant cities and towns.
The Bridge Ahead Initiative was launched in May, committing nearly $6 million to help partner museums develop strategies to engage and connect with communities remotely.
“There’s simply no way to replace the in-person experience visitors have with original works of art in the museum’s galleries,” said Museum Director Todd J. Tubutis. “But having funds from the Bridge Ahead initiative has enabled the Art Museum to continue to reach these audiences.”
The museum was awarded $40,000 in two phases. With the first phase of funding, Educational Programs Manager Heather Harris put together more than 1,000 white-line printmaking kits featuring American modernist Blanche Lazzell. The kits were distributed to every fourth-grade student in Monongalia County.
“We decided to feature Blanche Lazzell because she is a West Virginia artist, and her work and life are directly relevant to our community,” Harris said. “For example, I had to drive right by her family's farm on my way to deliver kits to Mason Dixon Elementary School."
The Art Museum of WVU boasts the largest public collection of Lazzell’s work, giving these students the opportunity to see her art in person when field trips are once again permitted.
“Lazzell was a lifelong learner who explored different styles and media with a variety of teachers throughout her life,” Harris said. “This spirit of inquiry is something we hope to share with the students of West Virginia.”
Welcome kits were also made for freshman in WVU’s College of Creative Arts.
“We wanted to provide a welcome to the incoming CCA first year students because we want them to know about the museum and its collection as they arrive on campus,” Harris said. “In the absence of being able to welcome them to the galleries, we thought it would be a good idea to provide them with resources such as sketchbooks and colored pencils as well as materials that give them ideas for how they can engage with our collection, even from afar.”
Phase one of the initiative also provided for dedicated Zoom Webinar licensing, software and equipment to facilitate virtual programming and class visits and support for marketing the re-opening of the museum.
In mid-September, the museum was awarded the second phase of the initiative.
“Phase one was about impacting as broad a student audience as possible,” Harris said. “Phase two will be more specialized, asking teachers what resources they most want and need. We are currently surveying all the art teachers in Monongalia County to assess how we can connect them and their students with the museum through virtual tours, professional development workshops, lesson plans, and materials.
“We will then use the Art Bridges funds to help meet these needs through the purchase and distribution of supplies, including a specialized camera to create a 3D virtual tour of the galleries.”
The museum will also use the funds to support an event with WVU’s LGBTQ+ Center on October 9.
“In concurrence with National Coming Out Day on October 11, we will host a program entitled ‘I am Brilliant’ which will feature a tour of the ‘Brilliant’ exhibition as well as a dialogue about personal brilliance and what makes each person shine,” Harris said. “Participants will receive a package of art supplies and then will create an artistic representation of their own brilliance or that of an LGBTQ icon. Images of these artworks will be shared on our websites and social media pages.”
For more information on the museum, visit https://artmuseum.wvu.edu/.