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TAKING ART – AND COMMUNITY – VIRTUAL By Tia Swanson

The Newark Museum of Art not only survived the pandemic, it thrived

As has become painfully apparent over the last several months, the pandemic was catastrophic for cultural institutions; some of those hit hardest were the nation’s art museums. In February of this year, for example, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the nation’s largest art museum, announced that it was considering selling some of its collection in order to cover an $150 million operating deficit caused by its closure.


It would seem reasonable to assume, then, that the Newark Museum of Art, with the nation’s 12th largest collection of art, and in the city often seen as the poor stepchild of New York, might have fared even more badly. It also had to close its doors, reopening only recently, and still is operating with strict limits on the number of daily visitors.


It is all the more surprising and remarkable, then, that in many ways the museum, long a cultural and educational resource for Newark and its surrounding communities, has seen its reputation and its mission soar. Along the way, it not only has rededicated itself to its primary purpose – its art collection and its exhibitions – but to its mission as a cultural and educational center for all. “We continue to work to be as relevant as possible,” says Deborah Kasindorf, the museum’s vice president of external affairs and a Maplewood resident. “It’s gratifying to see the progress.”

Maplewood resident Deborah Kasindorf is the vice president of external affairs at the Newark Museum.

Some of that work has had very little to do with art. One of the things of which Kasindorf is most proud in the last 18 months is the museum’s partnering with the local food bank network MEND to distribute 10,000 face masks to residents across the city. Another highlight, she says, was a partnership with Project Ready that sought to educate residents on voting; museum volunteers became phone bank workers, providing information about voter registration. To keep things light, artistic and nonpartisan, the museum sponsored a virtual cartooning contest among three professional cartoonists that was designed to inform about voting rights and the history of voting.


The museum was also working feverishly to adapt its rich curriculum for teachers, schools and families to the internet. Shirley Thomas, the museum’s senior director of education, says the museum went from “100 percent live to 100 percent virtual in three weeks.” Aware of the strains on schools and teachers, the museum made all of its school programming free, and it worked to make things as fun, and as tangible, as possible. One of the museum’s staff, for example, did a lesson on phases of the moon with Oreo cookies.


The biggest hit, however, may have been the museum’s version of Escape the Room. The game focuses on the Ballantine House, the 19th-century mansion that has been incorporated into the museum itself. Designed for middle schoolers on up, the game includes chemistry problems, Morse code clues, maps of Newark, and beer. Willy Wonka-like with a twist, participants must not only find the Ballantine’s beer recipe – the family fortune was made in brewing – but must decide whether to sell it to a rival Newark family. The idea for the game and its early design came from a museum scheduler who was put on leave by the pandemic. Eventually the museum hired an actual gamer to finish it off, and brought in a team of museum employees to make it as interactive, wide-ranging and educational as possible.


It has been such a success that corporations now request it to help break the ice with employee groups.


The museum also began offering online professional development for teachers preparing to use their games and programs. The training focused on social and emotional well-being, along with equity and inclusion. Each lesson also included a bit on mindfulness.


And it has been so popular that the Los Angeles Symphony got in touch. “They reached out to us and said, ‘We hear you guys are doing great things,’” says Thomas. Soon the museum will partner with the symphony to provide California teachers with a class on using art for social and emotional growth, and another on the Harlem Renaissance that focuses on the symbiotic relationship between art and music.

Bisa Butler, The Warmth of Other Sons, 2020; cotton, silk, wool and velvet, quilted and appliqué; 108 x 144 in. (276.9 × 347.3 × 1.3 cm); Purchase 2020 Collections Exchange Fund 2020.1; © Bisa Butler.

Educational programming has always been important to the museum, but because all the programming was based in the museum, it was limited by geography. Virtual learning changed that. The most recent numbers show, says Thomas, that from November 2020 to June of this year, nearly 13,000 students from five states and Canada benefited from the museum’s programs. And the museum provided professional development for 753 teachers from October through April.


That doesn’t mean the museum isn’t anxious to get back to its roots, and into its building. Thomas’ team is busy putting the finishing touches on a new exhibit at the museum focusing on endangered animals, which will premier in November and incorporate a bit of what was learned in all those pandemic months. It is interactive and immersive and will make use of the latest technology and computer-generated optics. And school groups will be welcomed back in January.


The museum will also continue to focus on the community, and on showcasing lesser-known voices and perspectives.


“Even before the shutdown,” says Kasindorf, “we were working to be more inclusive, more relevant.” The leadership team, which is all female, has dedicated itself to highlighting voices and artists who have too often been overlooked. It kept those parameters in mind as it has expanded its art collection and planned its exhibitions.


One of the museum’s recent showcased acquisitions is “The Warmth of Other Suns,” a monumental piece by artist-quilter Bisa Butler, who grew up in South Orange and taught at Columbia High School and in recent years has gained a national reputation for her work, which typically focuses on the history of the Black American experience.


And in October the museum will open an exhibition by Saya Woolfalk, a multimedia artist who describes herself as “binational” because she was born in Japan to a Japanese mother and mixed-race American father. She lives and works in New York and her work, steeped in science fiction, focuses on the intersection of science, art and gender.


In continuing to join forces with other community organizations, the Museum has collaborated with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra to bring a series of concerts to its memorial garden. The concerts run through September 24; the schedule and tickets are available through the museum’s website: newarkmuseumart.org.


Tia Swanson was an art history minor in college and in her next life will work in a museum.