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Take Part in the Art: SoCal Museums Find Creative Ways to Connect with Audiences

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In Southern California, we are spoiled for great art museums to visit – the Getty Museum and Villa, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Norton Simon Museum, the Broad and countless other venues featuring traditional and contemporary art from diverse cultures. For decades now, our local museums have been enticing us through their doors not only with their permanent collections, temporary exhibitions, family programs and musical performances but also with cafés, restaurants, gardens and gift shops, making them destinations where we choose to spend more and more of our time and money. 

At least, that was the case before March of this year. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced museums to close their doors to visitors for months on end; for some, reopening is uncertain. On May 18 (International Museum Day), two studies by UNESCO and the International Council of Museums (ICOM) confirmed that 90% of the world’s museums have closed because of the pandemic and estimated that nearly 13% might never reopen. To avoid this fate, like many museums around the world, SoCal museums have been finding ways to keep their audiences engaged, entertained and, hopefully, eager to support them. Online programming has been central to these efforts, and in Southern California — one of the world’s great creative hubs — some solutions have been exceptionally innovative. Here are a few highlights:

The Ragpicker by Édouard Manet (French, 1832-1883), c. 1865-1870; Oil on canvas, The Norton Simon Foundation, © The Norton Simon Foundation
The Ragpicker by Édouard Manet (French, 1832-1883), c. 1865-1870; Oil on canvas, The Norton Simon Foundation, © The Norton Simon Foundation

From the start of the shutdown, many local museums began posting in-gallery exhibitions online, offering video tours narrated by curators and creating podcasts showcasing highlights of their permanent collections. One of our great local collections of European and Asian art, the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, is spotlighting works by artists including Rembrandt, Goya, Degas and Picasso in short, informative videos. One excellent video features the Chief Curator Emily Talbot introducing Manet’s monumental painting, “The Ragpicker” (c.1865-70), back in the museum’s gallery after a year of conservation and a visit to the Frick Collection in New York. The video is not only educational but also intimate, providing some of the curator’s own impressions of the painting, as well as historical information, in what feels like a very personal tour with the curator.

The Coup, 1986, by Arpilleristas E.M. and F.D.D.; Embroidered textile, 15 x 19 ¾ inches | Courtesy of Francisco Letelier and Isabel Morel Letelier: Museum of Latin American Art, Long Beach, California
The Coup, 1986, by Arpilleristas E.M. and F.D.D.; Embroidered textile, 15 x 19 ¾ inches | Courtesy of Francisco Letelier and Isabel Morel Letelier: Museum of Latin American Art, Long Beach, California

For contemporary art exhibitions with strong socio-political themes, the Museum of Latin American Art (MOLAA) in Long Beach is presenting “Arte, Mujer y Memoria: Arpilleras” from Chile, of arpilleras, an exhibition of colorful textiles created by women in Chile during the 17-year Pinochet regime documenting the stories of their lives, their communities and the human rights abuses carried out by the dictatorship. "This time has been a challenge for us at the museum, but challenges can create opportunities. We are realizing the importance of our online offerings and trying to improve them now,” says Solimar Salas, vice president of museum content and programming for the institution.

In the online version of the exhibition, the images and labels are accompanied by historic video footage. For example, the text for the above arpillera includes a video of the bombing of La Moneda, the presidential palace, on September 11, 1973 and a recording of the last speech by the democratically elected president, Salvador Allende, before he was killed by Augusto Pinochet in the coup that transformed the country. Such video and audio provide powerful contextualization for these fascinating artworks that is not always possible in a gallery setting. 

At USC Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena, the exhibition “We Are Here: Contemporary Art and Asian Voices in Los Angeles,” highlights seven female contemporary artists of diverse Asian Pacific heritages living and working in Los Angeles. These artists draw from their lives and family histories to create compelling works that engage visitors to think about their own experiences and heritage. Now online, the exhibition includes videos that allow the artists to voice their own stories and discuss their work in ways that were not in the original exhibition plans. “Since ‘We Are Here’ opened the same weekend as the shutdown,” explains curator Rebecca Hall, “we are pleased to make online access to the exhibition a priority. Though it’s at its best when it can be viewed in person, this approach is exciting in its own way because people from all over can see the exhibition.”

In addition to creating online exhibitions, many museums have come up with new ways to engage audiences and encourage interactive experiences with the art. Perhaps the best known of these is the Getty Museum Challenge issued in March via Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, inviting people to recreate images from their collection. The challenge was inspired by the Rijksmuseum’s Instagram challenge “Between Art and Quarantine,” and like their Dutch counterpart, the Getty was inundated with images — always creative and often hilarious — created using family members, pets, food, furniture, cleaning products and more. “When we realized the Getty was going to close,” explains Annelisa Stephan, assistant director, digital content strategy, “we asked our social media community what they wanted from us during this time, and they told us they wanted to enjoy art and have some fun.” Stephan and her colleagues made it their goal that everything they post should uplift, inspire and create community through art. They also invited younger audiences to use the Getty’s art collection in the popular video game Animal Crossing to create mini virtual exhibitions or decorate their characters’ clothing or homes. Of the Getty Museum Challenge, she adds, “We’ve had more than 100,000 entries, and we’ve watched families, schools, senior centers, and others create these amazing things together. We’re very grateful for the experience.” Some of those entries will be compiled and published in “Off the Walls: Inspired Re-Creations of Iconic Artworks,” available September.

Though not all participants modeled their images after Getty artworks, many did with great success, including Irena Ochódzka, who parodied a 5,000 year old Cycladic marble sculpture of a man playing a harp by posing herself with a vacuum cleaner.

Male Harp Player of the Early Spedos Type, 2700–2300 B.C., Cycladic. Marble, 14 ⅛ x 11 1/16 in| The J. Paul Getty Museum, 85.AA.103 and a recreation via Facebook | Irena Ochódzka with canister vacuum
Male Harp Player of the Early Spedos Type, 2700–2300 B.C., Cycladic. Marble, 14 ⅛ x 11 1/16 in| The J. Paul Getty Museum, 85.AA.103 and a recreation via Facebook | Irena Ochódzka with canister vacuum

Similarly, British opera singer Peter Brathwaite was inspired by the Getty’s 18th century painting, “A Black Servant, England” to explore Black portraiture and get creative at home while opera performances are on pause. The Getty featured some of his series of 15 portrait recreations in its blog, Iris.

A similar interactive approach has been launched by the Autry Museum of the American West for its exhibition “Investigating Griffith Park,” which explores the importance of the park as Tongva/Gabrielino land and as a public park for Los Angeles. As part of the exhibition’s evolution as an interactive gallery space, the museum is inviting the community to send their stories of the park as well as to contribute to a gallery display of Griffith Park in crochet. On the website, instructions and videos explain how to crochet elderberry leaves, California poppies and butterflies, and any works sent to the museum will become part of a post-pandemic community display in the museum. This interactive invitation to create has been met with a very positive response from the community, according to Ben Fitzsimmons, associate director of programs and research at the Autry. 

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“More than a thousand people have watched the videos since we began posting them and we’re really looking forward to receiving people’s submissions,” said Fitzsimmons, “Although the Autry has held a number of craft workshops in the past, I think this idea is especially appealing right now because people are looking for new activities to occupy their time at home. The project gives them a chance to be creative and also to participate in a community-developed exhibition. Later, when the museum has reopened, they can visit the Autry and see their own works of art on display in the gallery.”

Griffith Park Yarnscape Designs by Julie Kadoi | Courtesy of the Autry Museum of the American West; Photograph by Julie Kadoi
Griffith Park Yarnscape Designs by Julie Kadoi | Courtesy of the Autry Museum of the American West; Photograph by Julie Kadoi

At a time when our movements seem so limited physically, geographically and socially, it is reassuring and comforting to still have access to art, creativity and culture via our computers, tablets and phones. Of course, the experience of viewing an artwork via a screen of any size does not compare with seeing the art in person, but thanks to the highly imaginative and heartfelt efforts of creative staff museum members, we are still able to view art, learn about the artists who made it and the cultural and social context in which it was made. With the click of a mouse, we can view masterpieces of painting, sculpture and textile art and hear the voices of artists and curators sharing their knowledge, experience and stories with us. We can even enjoy a dialogue with the museums and the art itself by recreating our own “masterpieces” out of pasta or pets, crocheting nature out of yarn or building mini museums at home or in a video game. All of these online initiatives currently being offered by our museums transport us far from the confines of our homes — free of charge and without the hassle of traffic — into worlds rich with artistry, natural beauty and community, providing us with a sense of connection that we very strongly need. And, as museums plan their reopenings, we will hopefully recall their support with gratitude during our isolation and remember to support them when we can, so they are still there when we emerge.  

Top Image: Griffith Park Yarnscape Designs by Julie Kadoi | Courtesy of the Autry Museum of the American West; Photograph by Julie Kadoi

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