The Wolfsonian Digitally Thriving During a Pandemic
Still image from Art of Illumination. Credit: Still from Live Inventory, Art of Illumination video, 2019, © Leo Castañeda
Just like the rest of the world, COVID-19 has caused many art spaces to close their doors to the public for the foreseeable future.
Top Miami art venues like The Wolfsonian have increased their digital presence with weekly virtual shows that focus on a wide range of topics as a way to connect with their audience.
FIU Wolfsonian Museum Curator, Shoshana Resnikoff, says The Wolfsonian is lucky with having Yucef Merhi, digital curator, already on staff prior to the start of COVID-19.
“We were already adjusting our thinking about the relationship between the in-gallery experience, the in-museum experience, and the online realm,” said Resnikoff.
Yucef Merhi, digital curator at The Wolfsonian said that COVID-19 has brought awareness to the digital realm and how institutions can engage with their audience using different tools specifically for online news.
“I started developing what we call net.art, which is art made for the Internet in the late 1990s. Since then I’ve seen how the world has evolved into an extension of this digital world,” said Merhi. “Everything has been positive. We are all evolving as a team and it’s becoming part of our culture. We are very analog culture and now digital is creating a new connection with the world and our audience because our audience is now digital.”
Prior to COVID-19, in-person exhibitions were prioritized over digital projects planned by Merhi and the team. Now that galleries are closed, those digital projects are taking focus.
“Oh my god! I think I have five times the responsibilities that I used to have before COVID-19,” said Merhi. “ Mostly because we had to create a robust detailed infrastructure for our experiences.”
The Wolfsonian has been trailblazing it’s way into the digital world with weekly virtual events that are available on Zoom and Facebook Live, partnering with Google Arts and Culture to have online exhibitions.
“Right now we really do need to have content that’s accessible, easily understood and engaging,” said Isabel Brador, digital assets and collection data manager with The Wolfsonian—FIU.
Each week The Wolfsonian has been hosting virtual events that range from a focus on 3D animation, protest art with design activism, architecture with the Jewish Museum of Florida and much more.
“We don’t want to overwhelm people, we don’t want to just do programs around the pandemics and depress people but we also don’t want to pretend it’s not happening,” said Resnikoff. “Finding the right balance to be a resource that is both educational and also enlightening and not overwhelming in this moment is a very fine line to walk. We’re constantly reassessing if what we are doing is in line with our mission.”
Adapting to a new reality has involved all of The Wolfsonian departments. In light of the increase in remote work, the marketing department created Zoom backgrounds- 16 of which are available for public use on The Wolfsonian—FIU website.
According to the site, these curated selections of Wolfsonian artworks, from scenes serene to social, is tailor-made to jazz up your conference calls, check-ins, and digital family FaceTime — because being housebound doesn’t mean you can’t stand out.
The Wolfsonian–FIU Head of Marketing + PR, Meg Floryan, said the idea came from The Wolfsonian—FIU acting director, Casey Steadman, who was inspired by a LinkedIn post to draw from the Wolfsonian collection, which is full of graphic artworks, murals, and other pieces that are perfect as virtual backdrops.
“We see the Wolfsonian Zoom virtual backgrounds as a great way to share our images with the world during the pandemic,” she said. “ It’s partly a marketing tool, naturally, but it also speaks to a deeper need among the staff to feel close to the collection while working remotely.”
“I shared those with my family,” laughed Resnikoff. “One of my cousins mentioned she didn’t want her co-workers seeing her house and now my cousin in San Antonio uses our backdrops.”
Although The Wolfsonian has had great success in transferring to the digital world, Merhi has noted some technology struggles he has faced during the pandemic like struggling to access large files of photos on his home computer.
“I think the major challenge was keeping a pace where we can deliver content and new experience based on these technologies,” he said. “I also learned that not everyone has the same Internet speed or the same smartphone or the same computer. All these projects have to adapt or be scalable to be experienced correctly, which has been a very important lesson for all of us.”
Although The Wolfsonian has been able to adapt to the new way of life during COVID-19, there have still been challenges.
“I am an object person and to me one of the things I care most about in the museums is facilitating the interaction between a visitor and a thing,” said Resnikoff. “For me, it was a mental process and I had to accept that the thing I love most about museums just wasn’t going to happen for a while.”
The Wolfsonian — FIU staff agree that one of the biggest challenges is being away from the building, but Merhi believes that has allowed for some freedom of thinking in a different way for events and engagement.
Although the experience may be different than normal, The Wolfsonian is working diligently to adopt new digital trends while engaging their audience.
“We now see our website as something more integrated to our physical space,” he said. “We started experimenting with all of these different [virtual] realities and technologies in order to provide a more powerful and relevant experience to our audience.”
Brea Jones is part of our first Artburst Miami Arts Journalism Mentoring Cohort for 2020. Learn more about this initiative HERE.
This blog item is presented as part of the Artburst Miami Mentorship Program.