Santa Fe Museums Adapt to Stay-at-Home Order

A trio of local museums turn to online engagement in the age of COVID-19

The first thing you're going to need to do is learn how to make your own virtual reality goggles.

Yeah, yeah—that sounds hard, but it's not like you don't have a lot of time on your hands right now. And anyway, it's not so hard, as I recently learned with this-here tutorial from (you'll need a shoebox, scissors, a gluestick some velcro and two 45mm biconvex lenses. That last one is tricky, but you can get them on Amazon; just remember you want two).

Next, download the artsteps app to your phone. Now, search for "IAIA." This will take you to IAIA's Museum of Contemporary Native Arts. Click "watch." Now put on your homemade goggles and you're practically inside MoCNA and virtually touring one of its newest exhibits: Indigenous Futurisms: Transcending Past/Present/Future.

It's all thanks to MoCNA's senior manager of education, Winoka Yepa (Diné). She designed the virtual space through the artsteps app's toolset, which allows users to render virtual environments; Yepa started the project roughly a month ago, and it has become one of the most intriguing assets from a local museum. Period.

"It's a pretty simple program," she tells SFR. "It's something that could be easily used by anyone."

And it's free.

In the case of Indigenous Futurisms, Yepa worked with high-quality digital photography to recreate the exhibit, which features a staggering list of Native artists including Daniel McCoy (Muscogee Creek/Citizen Band Potawatomi), Elizabeth LaPensée (Anishinaabe/Métis), Sarah Sense (Chitimacha), Steven Paul Judd (Kiowa/Choctaw) and so many others.

Pieces explore popular sci-fi imagery from Alien to Star Wars, as well as more realistic points of inspiration, in sculpture, painting, textiles, clothing and much more.

Back in the app, intuitive virtual buttons make strolling the show a breeze. "Walking" up to any work, users can summon popup windows with more info about the artists and their intent—there's even an option to view the exhibit sans goggles. I just wanted to point out that they're fun.

This is only the beginning. Yepa says she's kicking around the idea of creating another virtual exhibit with artsteps for the IAIA BFA senior show.

"It went up around the same week we started getting COVID-19 cases in New Mexico," she explains. "It was only up for about a week."

She also sees the artsteps tools as a possibility for other local museums and galleries. Such tools will become important as more museums adapt to sequestered audiences.

The various teams at the New Mexico Museum of Art, for example, have been racking their brains for ways to foster and continue engagement.

"We want to make sure all our departments are represented and have equal opportunity to engage our audience and get the work out there," librarian and archivist Sophie Friedman tells SFR. "We have an ongoing list."

Friedman says staff is working on short and long term strategies, but immediate projects are focused on web and social media engagement. On the museum's Facebook page, various departments are showcasing a more behind-the-scenes look at how the museum works. Friedman and others are creating a series of posts celebrating women in the arts to mark the 100-year anniversary of women's suffrage; they're also crowdsourcing to see what women artists the museum's fans most appreciate.

On Instagram, the museum is kicking off a hashtag (#nmavirtualexhibit) for artists to use when posting. Those posts will then be reviewed by curatorial staff for potential inclusion on the @newmexicoartmuseum Instagram page's future virtual exhibits—a rare submissions opportunity according to Friedman.

"We have a new assistant curator who started, like, a month ago," Friedman says. "This idea was hers."

That assistant curator is Jana Gottshalk, formerly of the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art and the mind behind that museum's critically beloved 2018 GenNext show. Elsewhere, the museum's tried and true curatorial staff of Merry Scully, Christian Waguespack and Katherine Ware continue working, though their specific upcoming exhibits have not been announced.

"Every day, all seven days of the week, we have a different series assigned as either a Facebook or Instagram post, story or both to different departments," Friedman adds. "What we're trying to do is provide a virtual presence, an idea of what we do when we're physically open."

Up on Museum Hill, Khristaan Villela, the Museum of International Folk Art's executive director, is facing similar challenges.

MOIFA already has a robust online presence with a massive, searchable archive, various downloadable lesson plans in English and Spanish and lots more on its website. Developments from COVID-19 have led to plans for virtual tours, extended online experiences, docent blogs, potential video series and a new YouTube channel that already boasts 47 videos with curators, artists and others.

"We're assessing all kinds of possibilities," Villela says. "For example, there's a team right now from New Mexico Highlands [University] assisting us with a micro-website for the [Yokai: Ghosts and Demons of Japan] exhibit; we had worked with a professor in Kyoto and his students, and they taped several ghost stories…those are ideally suited to go up online."

The museum has already been handing out bags of free art supplies along with meals provided through Santa Fe Public Schools and, according to Villela, will continue to evolve and adapt.

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