THE VISUAL ARTS HAVE BEEN HARD HIT BY THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC, BUT SOUTHEASTERN’S CONTEMPORARY ART GALLERY IS TAKING AN ACTIVE ROLE IN KEEPING THEM ALIVE AND STRONG FOR THE ENTIRE COMMUNITY.
Throughout this past year of world-wide uncertainties brought on by the pandemic, there has perhaps never been a better time for both creating and engaging with the arts. As Thomas Merton once said, “Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.”
Southeastern’s Contemporary Art Gallery has remained a valuable resource for students and the entire community throughout this difficult time—providing physical and digital spaces for both education and reflection. Importantly, it has also served as a venue for Southeastern faculty to showcase their own recent works and artistic processes, such as during the Gallery’s recent 2021 Art + Design Faculty Exhibition.
This exhibition, which was held from January 20-February 24, is an annual event open to all Southeastern faculty. This year’s installment featured approximately 20 artists, many of whom are working in series, and their wide-ranging works that include photography, video, sculpture, ceramics, fashion or costume design, theatre design, and more.
Associate Professor of New Media and Animation and Director of the Southeastern Contemporary Art Gallery Cristina Molina explained that the goal of this exhibition “is to highlight the work of faculty so that students in the Visual Art + Design Department have an idea of what their professors and instructors are making creatively. It’s to support the idea that we, as teachers, are also engaged in a creative practice, and that is part of our research which we also then bring to the classroom.” Moreover, it is also created to allow the larger community to become more familiar with the recent artistic work coming out of the studios of Southeastern faculty.
The work presented in the exhibition is indeed quite diverse—in terms of media, but also in terms of concepts and concerns being explored. While there can sometimes be a lack of understanding when it comes to contemporary art, Molina explained how each piece displayed is deeply thought out. “I’d like viewers to appreciate the efforts and the talents of our faculty, but also to appreciate the amount of research and scholarship that goes in to creating these works, and to see that each artist is really considering theme and subject matter as they’re making these works,” said Molina. “It’s a very thoughtful and carefully considered process.”
Every artwork has its own unique story to tell, but some of the pieces in this exhibition were directly influenced by the subject matter of the pandemic. One of these, by Professor of Art Education Dr. Kim Finley, is a monochromatic, abstracted landscape that directly references the number of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. “It’s a very thoughtful piece, a very current and poignant piece for us to consider the gravity of this pandemic and to remember to take care and take precautions, because it is a very serious problem right now,” said Molina.
Other featured artists and faculty members including Christopher Burns, Tom Walton, and Vanessa Centeno reference the pandemic in their artwork as well.
Burns’ work, a photographic survey of the rural South Louisiana landscape, uses vibrant colors while also being quiet, dark, and omitting people. According to him, “This reflects not only the coronavirus restrictions placed on my practice, but the way outsiders struggle to relate and understand the landscape here, geographically and socially.”
The art community has been one of the hardest hit by the economic repercussions of the pandemic, with many museums and galleries being forced to close their doors and artists’ sales in steep decline. Following a 2020 national survey of COVID-19 impact on museums in the United States, the American Alliance of Museums, the only organization representing the entire scope of the museum community and the premier museum accrediting body in the U.S., concluded that one out of three museums in our country may close forever.
Yet, there is a great benefit to maintaining a physical space for the arts. “I think a physical space is important, especially for viewers, because there are certain facets of artworks that can’t be translated via a screen,” said Molina. “This can be especially true for three-dimensional media, the materials and dimensionality of which can be documented but are hard to translate. Additionally, the space itself helps create a heightened level of experience and engagement with the art. I think that anyone who appreciates art can remember being confronted with an artwork that really blew them away. That was meaningful to them. They felt transcended by it. And such experiences are also because of the conditions of the space. For example, it’s very quiet [in the Gallery]. Part of the role of the Gallery is to create these conditions where artwork can be viewed in a contemplative space free of any distraction and offer space and time for that kind of viewing participation.”
While maintaining this physical space for the arts is vital, implementing associated programming to enhance understanding of and engagement with this and other exhibitions is also essential, especially during the pandemic. At the Contemporary Art Gallery, this has been done through continuing the visiting artist talks, including in a new virtual format while in-person gathering has not been possible. The Gallery also traditionally provides exhibition tours, catalogs, and more. “It’s very important to have these peripheral programs so that they inform the current exhibitions,” said Molina.
The development of virtual programs like the Gallery’s visiting artist talks is just one way in which the arts community has developed innovative methods to survive and reach others during this past year. “I think that the artist community is very resilient,” said Molina. “We’re trained to solve problems creatively. So I’m hopeful that out of this will come some new, innovative ways to get work distributed, but also to engage audiences.”
From students to the wider community, Southeastern’s Contemporary Art Gallery does indeed continue to serve and engage audiences. With new exhibitions to explore almost every month, both in person and virtual programming for enhanced experiences, and a serene space for reflection with free admission for all, it remains a respite in the arts, both from afar and in person in the heart of Southeastern’s campus.