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Physical Art 

UMOCA's director talks about the challenges of reopening, and engaging the community during a pandemic.

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  • Laura Hurtado

Back in mid-March, Laura Allred Hurtado—executive director of the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art—thought the museum's closure as a result of the coronavirus outbreak would last a couple of weeks. Four months later, UMOCA's doors are finally reopening to the public July 15, at a time when there's still incredible uncertainty about the pandemic.

As was the case for most of us, Hurtado had no sense for what was coming even a few days before everything changed. In fact, she was visiting New York City with a group of UMOCA donors in early March, returning to attend a sold-out event at the Rose Wagner Center featuring the artist collective Guerrilla Girls on Monday, March 9. "I just didn't have a pulse on the gravity of the situation early in that week," Hurtado recalls. "In New York, we were slightly worried, but still riding on public transportation. It was in the back of our minds, but far back of our minds. Then, we were closed by that Thursday."

During those early days of the pandemic, Hurtado and the UMOCA staff went to work on preparing for a variety of possibilities involving the revision of their exhibition calendar. "Worst case scenario," Hurtado recalls, "if we're reopening in September, or August, or July, what do we need to change to accommodate that? So we did some really agile planning."

Beyond preparing for the things they couldn't do, the goal then became realizing what they could do, and working towards providing services for their community in a safe, engaging way. "We came up with these key words, and tried to come up with programming from that," Hurtado says. "They needed comfort, normalcy, connection, community and stimulation. So there was a lot of brainstorming: If these are the needs we're seeing, how do we create programming within the restrictions that exist, and meet our audience where they're at?"

Naturally, many of those ideas involved virtual interaction. Some of them were extremely well-received, including the "Art Everyday" videos that helped parents teaching their children at home with hands-on art-making projects that could be created from supplies that were available around the home. Others, Hurtado feels, were a bit less successful, like the 360-degree online tours of current exhibitions. "I think those were important to document our exhibitions," Hurtado says. "But while some people were grateful, I think people ... wanted that ability to have something physical, to have a connection."

Among the ideas that invited people back into a real-world experience with art was the Lawn Gnomes 2020 project, which asked local artists to present work in their front yards that visitors could drive by and see. Including a collaboration with Granary Arts in Ephraim, the project included work by contributors including Jared Steffenson and Cara Krebs, at locations in several Utah counties. "Even within the first few weeks [of the pandemic], people had kind of a digital fatigue, tired of staring at screens all day," Hurtado says. "It seemed important to really connect people with their communities, even their own neighborhoods."

Collaboration with other organizations also became important as UMOCA planned for its reopening. Hurtado recalls conversations with leaders of arts organizations around the country, as well as benefitting from the experience locally of venues like Thanksgiving Point and Hogle Zoo which were among the first to re-open with new health and safety guidelines in place. "There's a sense of, 'we're not alone,'" Hurtado says. "Part of what this stay-at-home order did is create this sense of isolation, where your world suddenly becomes very small. ... It was nice to see how those organizations took early steps, and knowing in some cases, there were mixed reactions ... that maybe [they were] opening too early."

While there are still concerns within the community about what should and should not be open as coronavirus case numbers continue to rise, Hurtado believes that the nature of a place like UMOCA makes it conducive to a safe re-opening, especially with an initial capacity limitation of 20 guests at any one time. "One way our organization is set up that's different from, say, Ballet West or the Eccles Theater, is ... our model isn't a model of people being seated together in a tight space, but the model of a museum: 'Don't touch,'" Hurtado says. "Giving people space to reflect, and room with the art, is kind of the cultural practice of viewing in a museum."

As the museum re-opens with several new exhibitions—including From Before to Now, an exhibition by artist exploring how the pandemic has impacted their work—Hurtado hopes that it can offer not just the experiences with art that people crave, but a glimpse at what is possible beyond our reasonable ongoing fears. "I think there's something really powerful in saying there's a new normal, and within that space we can operate in a new way, where people can still feel protected," she says. "There is a bit of a cloud lifting."

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