Text for Art

The Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian moves into your smartphone

Pretty much every museum in Santa Fe has transitioned to a heavier online presence as the pandemic-spurred stay-at-home order continues. The New Mexico Museum of Art, for example, has embraced Instagram with virtually-curated exhibits; the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Art has worked within the Artsteps app to create three-dimensional renderings of their offerings.

For its part, the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian already offered expanded content for numerous assets such as audio from curators and artists, including those represented in the recent Laughter and Resilience: Humor in Native American Art exhibit. But as the institution was forced to pivot along with the rest of the world, its use of the Guide By Cell service has added to the experience for those in search of a little culture from home—especially for those who might not have a great internet connection, but do have a working smartphone.

"It's basically tech that turns visitors' devices into interactive experiences," chief curator Andrea Hanley (Navajo) tells SFR. "If you want to further somebody's experience…they can pull it up and listen to an artist's talk or a curator's talk, or you can look at the images from the show."

Getting there is easy—just text "Wheelwright" to 56512 and a link arrives immediately. Said link whisks you away to an already impressive list of things to explore, from the Laughter & Resilience show and Rose B. Simpson's Lit retrospective, to the impressive Conversations: Artworks in Dialogue selection of pieces from the museum's Daniel E. Prall collection (Prall was a longtime supporter of and volunteer at the Wheelwright). I also recommend the super-fun From Converse to Native Canvas, a small but powerful trio of Converse Chuck Taylor pairs redesigned with beadwork and other Native imagery.

Some selections include a brief primer on the piece, others contain embedded audio files featuring artist statements, background info, behind-the-scenes stories, making-of info and other ways to forge a more meaningful connection to the work.

"We just felt like this was a really good way to reach those people who might now be doing everything from their phone," Hanley tells SFR. "And we thought this was another good way to support people taking a break. It's a little different than a lot of other virtual exhibitions. It's a little more accessible because we want to make sure everyone can see a bit of what we're doing."

On its website, the Wheelwright is also offering free downloadable coloring sheets from Simpson and Bob Hazous, and Hanley says they're really only starting to scratch the surface.

"When this all happened, we were able to get on it fairly quickly, and we're going to continue adding more content as we go along," she explains. "We're looking at creating new exhibits, we're looking at other smartphone tours, audio guides, things where your phone becomes completely interactive."

Hanley also says to expect a series of video interviews with artists, but with a twist.

"We're premiering it [this week], and it's a little bit different because we were trying to figure out ways to connect, and you've been seeing this a lot where people conduct artist interviews through Zoom," she says. "So we were working with Steven J Yazzie from the Laughter & Resilience show who said, 'I want my kids to interview me.' I provided some questions and they worked on them a little bit and interviewed their dad. It's so sweet. We're trying to reach people in a different way and with something that maybe makes them smile and teaches them about the exhibit in a way that isn't a straightforward interview."

Beyond that, Hanley and her team are continuing to brainstorm. The next big project is the development of resources meant for teachers to go along with the Guide By Cell content. Hanley says they've developed certain aspects already, but they're currently figuring out how to craft slightly longer curricula for the online classroom.

"The idea is that we connect with schools and kids and parents, because we want to be able to engage with our folks, but also to entertain people," she says. "I'm hoping it will be successful in that way, and the staff is really creative and particularly engaged right now at looking into ways we can be helpful to our community. Especially as a Navajo person, I understand lack of connectivity, but I know that people have their phones. Being able to use that instead of downloading apps—people calling something, texting something instead—it's important. And hopefully it's inspiring."

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