Transcending media: LU Art Galleries shifts online

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The Lehigh University Art Galleries (LUAG) team is finding new ways to preserve the experience of viewing and making art while in quarantine due to the coronavirus.

The galleries closed on March 11 and staff moved their operations online, allowing the works to reach a wider audience than they could on campus. Some of the staff, however, are still grappling with the most effective way to provide a profound art experience virtually.

“We are all experimenting,” said preparator and collections specialist Kahlil Allaik. “It’s a new experience for everyone… We are trying our best to have the best communication without being face-to-face. Especially with art — the experience of being in front of art is feeling the energy.” 

Linda Ganus, an adjunct professor in music, and Amy Forsyth, an associate professor in art, architecture and design, lead the last Art in Dialogue session on March 3, 2020, before campus shut down due to COVID-19. LUAG has found ways to offer its programs online during the pandemic. (Courtesy of Stacie Brennan)

LUAG, sometimes referred to as a “museum without walls,” has six galleries across Lehigh’s campuses in Zoellner Arts Center, Iacocca Hall, Maginnes Hall, Fairchild-Martindale Library, Rauch Business School and an art study center in Building C on Mountaintop.

While some events have been canceled, the team has found alternate ways to successfully move most of its programs and exhibitions online, as well as launch new ones, said Alexa Nunamaker, ‘20, a member of the LUAG Student Advisory Committee.

“Another thing that we’ve been doing is thinking about how we can capitalize on our new website that we launched recently,” said Stacie Brennan, the curator of education. “We were positioned really well to shift to an online format with the new website. We’ve been putting out lots of new, different resources so that people can engage with our digital collection online.”

The website displays over 1,500 works of art, along with the LUAG’s many programs and resources. The team has come up with various discussion-based events and art-making workshops for all of its audiences, including Lehigh students and staff, to grade school-aged students and their families, and  community groups in the area.

Allaik said he’s shifted his priorities to online work with office and writing projects, which typically involves designing in the gallery and looking over the collections. 

One of the recently finished online projects is called “Art in Dialogue,” a series pairing faculty members from the art, architecture and design department with experts in the community, to explore works of art and their interdisciplinary connections.

LUAG also holds a Zoom event on Tuesday nights called “Connect and Create,” which they intend to continue into the fall semester. The series pairs works of art with an activity that allows for creative expression. 

For their most recent event, “Cocktails with the Curator,” Mark Wonsidler, the curator of collections and exhibitions, demonstrated how to mix a martini while drawing connections between the drink and Ellsworth Kelly’s image Green Curve With Radius Of Twenty Feet.

LUAG has also been active on its social media platforms. They partnered with the student group “Artists for Change” for an online competition and participated in world-wide museum trends like “Museum Week” and the “Getty Museum Challenge.”

LUAG has extended its reach since switching to remote operations. They have reached over 3,000 people spanning from the Lehigh Valley to the Aleutian Islands, said William Crow, director of LUAG and professor of practice in the art, architecture and design department.

“Something is lost when you are not in the physical presence of a work of art,” Crow said. “It brings with it all the challenges and pitfalls of working with digital reproductions of images, not to mention the tactile, hands-on approach to art-making experiences in the art galleries, and, of course, the physical community and engagement that an art museum can provide with physically bringing people together. We certainly are doing the best that we can digitally and in some ways are forging new kinds of communities.”

Brennan said the team has been inviting program participants to use chat boxes and unmute themselves during Zoom calls to help gauge and encourage audience responses. She said she thinks the digital world will be a part of everything they do going forward because of the opportunities their online presence has brought.

Nunamaker said she is optimistic Lehigh will be back on campus in the fall, but the LUAG team has been planning for both virtual and in-person events.

One of these events is titled “Doing Democracy,” an exhibition curated by Lehigh students from different disciplines including history, journalism and art. It will feature photographs from Lehigh’s collection donated by George Stephanopoulos and will coincide with the U.S. presidential election. Relevant to the global climate crisis, LUAG will have an exhibition titled “Well, Well, Well: Picturing Wellness,” which will include pieces that capture diverse ideas about well-being, Crow said.

Crow said he hopes more people will look to the galleries as a resource for creative inspiration and encourages everyone to engage with LUAG’s social media platforms and website. He invites Lehigh students to contribute their ideas and skills to their operations by joining the Student Advisory Committee.

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