It’s been a tough year for the visual arts. Well, it’s been a tough year for everyone, but throughout the pandemic, movies have been released, albums have dropped and god knows we’ve all watched enough TV. Gallery spaces, however, have had to contend with an existential problem: how do you engage the public with a painting, photograph or sculpture when no one’s allowed to come see it? Nevada’s two university sponsored art museums—UNLV’s Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art, and the John and Geraldine Lilley Museum of Art at UNR—spent the last nine months finding answers to that problem.

Alisha Kerlin. Photo courtesy UNLV.

“We had to leave the museum mid-install—that was [March] 16th,” said Alisha Kerlin, executive director of the Barrick. “I wanted to keep my team … engaged and connected to the mission. And, so, we met on the 17th and we thought, ‘How can we fulfill our mission of creating access to art when we’re closed?’”

Every day for weeks, the museum staff would post an illustrated prompt to their Instagram, asking their thousands of followers to “draw your breakfast,” or “draw something with only 10 lines” for example. The response was immediately positive, so much so that Kerlin and her staff collected all of the drawings into a digital catalog which can now be found online.

“We received about a thousand [drawings], and we didn’t just do it for 30 days. We kept going because it became very popular,” Kerlin said.

At the same time that the first round of pandemic lockdowns started, a few hundred miles north, Vivian Zavataro, executive director of the Lilley Museum at UNR, also realized that her plans for the year would be put on hold.

“So right away, me and [graduate assistant] Jacob Carnahan started the #LilleyFromHome—inspired by “museums from home,” a hashtag that was going around the country and the world—and started posting objects from our permanent collection with perspectives from different community members, and also just giving the public a little bit more information about the objects that we have in our collection that a lot of people don’t know about,” Zavataro said.

Vivian Zavataro. Photo: Kris Vagner

The Lilley was established in 2018, meaning that it hasn’t had much time to develop its online presence. Visitors being barred from campus meant that Zavataro and her staff had to jump start their social media schedules with posts from the museum’s collection, but also gave her a chance to schedule some literal facetime—or “Zoom-time”—with the community.

“We did these quarantine interview sessions, in which I interviewed artists that are part of our permanent collection, as well as local members of our arts community, such as [Double Scoop Editor] Kris Vagner, [Reno Contemporaries leader] Sarah Ferguson, [Stremmel Gallery Director] Parker Stremmel,” Zavataro said. 

While both the Barrick and the Lilley experimented with these social media projects and others (like virtual tours, faculty poetry, and children’s coloring books) the two museums found opportunities to foster a new relationship with each other as well. 

“We also partnered up with the Barrick Museum and this series called Duet with the hashtag that we came up with … #SisterMuseumsNV,” Zavataro said. “It was really fun little juxtapositions of objects from my collection and [their] collection. … There’s that rivalry between UNLV and UNR, and [we were] kind of breaking those barriers and starting to collaborate and bridge the South and the North, in a way.”

“‘How do you get to know your sister museum?’ was the idea from the staff,” said Kerlin. “Well, you get to know them through the collection. It was like, ‘OK, we’re not the only ones facing the pandemic.’ Let’s reach out and create these relationships while we can, you know, lean on each other because it’s within [the Nevada System of Higher Education]. It’s within our own institution. Why do we not have a relationship?”

While the online Duet series officially ended last month, Kerlin and Zavataro hope to raise money to turn the series into an actual exhibition that can travel between UNLV and UNR. A catalog of the series is being developed by Chloe Bernardo, a graphic designer at the Barrick, with all sales going to funding the joint display.

Looking ahead

Regardless of what any social media influencer might tell you, online success is nice, but it’s nothing compared to real-world connection. While both Kerlin and Zavataro are happy about the engagement they’ve found for their museums online, both would have preferred to have their galleries open this past year—and their closure came with more than a few struggles.

“The challenge that was kind of hovering over me, especially, was the prospect of our budget cuts,” Zavataro said. “We knew that we would probably get furloughed, not laid off, but we knew that that was going to happen. We also knew that our tiny little budget for the museum would also get cut. So, we were trying to look into how we’re going to survive this next year.”

Both museums reopened their doors with enhanced social distancing measures this past summer and were able to put on shows that had previously been delayed. However, the Lilley is a relatively new institution with a smaller budget, and many of the grants it has relied on have been cut due to financial strain. Coupled with UNR’s hiring freeze, budgetary issues are at the front of its agenda.

“As you can imagine, asking donors for funds is not the best time,” Zavataro said. “Most people, not everybody, but most people are struggling. We were able to reach out and get some funds, and we’ll be putting out a newsletter about those. But we are still thinking about diversifying our funds and making a connection with new donors in the area.”

Meanwhile, down south, Kerlin said that the museum is not currently renting any of its space to the public (a revenue stream in years past) but received several grants including a nomination-only grant from the Western States Arts Federation to pay for some of its upcoming programming. In the wake of a turbulent year, however, that included both a deadly pandemic and nationwide push for racial justice, Kerlin said that she wants the Barrick to be more representational of the community it serves.

“We’re a mostly white institution in the middle of this Black Lives Matter uprising, you know, how can we be better in the middle of a hiring freeze?” Kerlin said. “So we partnered with the Womxn of Color Arts Festival … and Gulch. Womxn of Color Arts Festival is about supporting women of color artists in a very intersectional way. Gulch is about highlighting indigenous and Latinx artists.”

Lance Smith’s exhibition In the Interest of Action, on view at the Barrick through Feb. 19, is part of the Womxn of Color Arts Festival. Photo: Lonnie Timmons III/UNLV Photo Services

With its greater community presence and larger pool of resources, Kerlin and the staff of the Barrick feel an obligation to help artists, especially BIPOC and LGBTQ artists as close to home as possible, meaning that several of their upcoming exhibitions will feature artists whose work specifically comments on racial injustice—including harmful practices inherent to museum spaces themselves. As a reflection to the Barrick’s commitment to diversity, Kerlin asked UNLV to remove its old mascot Beauregard the Wolf (who was depicted in a Confederate soldier’s traditional grey uniform) from the floor of one of the galleries.

“I couldn’t have the Womxn of Color Arts Festival in the museum with the logo on the floor. It’s something that was a challenge to work with for so many years,” Kerlin said.

A full calendar of the upcoming exhibitions and a statement about the Barrick’s new community partnerships can be found on its website.

The Lilley also has a show that speaks to the inherent biases and harm to communities of color propagated by Western art spaces. In its long-term exhibition, To Have and to Hold, items from the museum’s permanent collection are arranged to highlight the diversity of cultures, themes and experiences shared by the hands that made them.

At the Lilley, artworks from different times, places, and cultures are often placed next to each other. In this example, Chinese vases from the c. 1900 are adjacent to a painting of football players by Frank Buffalo Hyde, a contemporary artist from Santa Fe, New Mexico. Photo: Kris Vagner

“Many museums are considering their role in supporting colonialism, advancing ethnocentric object classifications, creating false divisions between craft and art, propping up gender divisions and enriching collectors of contemporary art,” reads the introductory event information on the Lilley’s website. “Inspired by a small coterie of progressive museums that are rethinking entrenched curatorial habits, we have chosen to arrange our collection objects not according to Western notions of time, stylistic chronologies, by artist or medium, or according to fashion or market trends. An interest in beauty and creativity guides us as we endeavor to share these works from across the world with you.”

Hopefully this year will see the end of social distancing, plexiglass dividers and diminished maximum occupancies—things that have been necessary to Nevada’s two sister museums’ mission to bring visual arts to their communities. But as far as permanent changes from lessons learned in 2020, both have reconsidered who that mission is actually serving, and who is yet to be included when the doors eventually reopen without restriction.

Leonor Fini Not a Muse, An Artist will be on view at UNR’s Lilley Museum Jan. 2 – May 15.

The Barrick Museum at UNLV is showing Lance L. Smith: In the Interest of Action through Feb. 19. The following shows will run from Jan. 15 – April 2: Brent Holmes: Behold a Pale Horse; Gig DePio: Rebuilders; Chase R. McCurdy: Threads in Time; and This is the Place, This Must Be the Place, a collaboration between Kyla Hansen and Krystal Ramirez.

Posted by Matt Bieker

Matt Bieker is an award-winning photojournalist and native of Reno, Nevada. He received his degree in Journalism from the University of Nevada Reno in 2014, and currently covers arts & entertainment and community development in his hometown.