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ROCKLAND, Maine ― When the pandemic forced cultural institutions to close their doors in March, folks at the Farnsworth Art Museum and the Center for Maine Contemporary Art knew they still needed to provide Mainers with ways to immerse themselves in the arts.
The idea of art as a way to forge connections between people and to help people express themselves during a time of mental hardship was a driving force behind the decision to take these renowned art institutions into a virtual space for the time being.
“We kind of gravitated around the idea that self expression is a critical component of health and wellness and that’s a thing that art is all about and being in a museum is all about. People use art all the time to express things that they’re troubled about or having difficulty dealing with and what a time to be in a world like that,” Farnsworth Chief Advancement Officer Ann Scheflen said.
Both the Farnsworth and the CMCA have had their collections available online prior to the forced closure caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. But now the museums are offering robust online programming around these volumes of artwork for all audiences.
Keeping children involved in the arts is a top priority for both institutions. Following the shutdown, one of the Farnsworth’s art educators set up a green screen in her home and began recording online lessons for teachers to use. In normal circumstances, the Farnsworth works with about 17,000 students across the state through its Arts in Education program.
“The classrooms were still meeting [virtually] and having some kind of curriculum but art was kind of low on the priority list,” Scheflen said. “But for the teachers we work with, they know how important art can be at a time like this.”
At the CMCA, lesson plans broken down by age were made around each of their past exhibits ― which are available for viewing through virtual tours on their website. An art camp scheduled for April break was instead shifted to Facebook Live, where they’re also hosting Saturday artmaking workshops for all ages.
In an attempt to keep their community of followers connected and engaged, the Farnsworth began publishing a newsletter that goes out twice a week. It contains everything from curator talks centered around pieces in the museum’s collection, to interviews with local artists and at-home artmaking activities.
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The subscription list for the newsletter has doubled week after week, Scheflen said, and inspired an anonymous person to make a donation to the museum in gratitude.
“Art is about expressing things that you see and feel. We know that is something that leads to better health and wellness,” Scheflen said. “Just because the building is closed there is still art all around. By shifting online, we feel like we’ve really helped people.”
The museums also had to figure out how to maintain the social aspect of art during a time when people cannot gather to celebrate it. Next month, the CMCA will be hosting its first online exhibit opening. The virtual tour of artist Erin Johnson’s new exhibit will be launched on June 6 followed by a reception held via the video conferencing platform Zoom, where Johnson and others will talk.
“We’re just asking everyone to pour themselves a glass of wine and have some snacks handy and kind of have that festive atmosphere of everyone gathering for an opening virtually,” CMCA Executive Director Suzette McAvoy said.
While the closures have led to challenges, there have also been some unexpected benefits for the museums. With an online presence, the Maine art that each museum spotlights is now reaching national audiences.
“It’s allowed us to expand our audience in ways we hadn’t quite expected. Our reach is not just statewide, it’s much beyond,” McAvoy said.
Additionally, with elaborate summer galas cancelled, museum staff has had more time to launch projects they’d be unable to do previously. For the CMCA that included launching a 10-week art history course that is being led by one of the museum’s associate curators. With a registration cap of 20 people, the course ― which is held weekly via Zoom ― is nearly full with 19 participants.
At current standing, the Farnsworth hopes to reopen sometime in June and the CMCA is hoping to reopen July 1. However, social distancing guidelines will have to be enforced and there will be limits on the number of people who can visit the museums at one time.
“There is no substitute for being in the physical presence of art,” McAvoy said. “We’ll all be excited to do that when we can safely gather again.”
Watch: Janet Mills outlines her plan to reopen