Making art together: social activities for isolation

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Our big public art institutions are social places. In ordinary times they are a go-to destination for those looking to entertain and inspire restless minds, both young and old. They are somewhere to meet friends, start a conversation, learn something. And even in these extraordinary times, our public galleries continue to offer a wide range of social activities, for children and adults, online. Art Guide spoke to some of the people at the NGV, AGNSW and QAGOMA who are working hard behind closed doors to keep these galleries open to the public.

Providing a wide array of online activities is just business as usual for our public galleries, but as they quickly adapt to new ways of working, new ways of engaging with audiences at home are also rapidly emerging.

At the NGV, curator of children’s programs Kate Ryan and her team have speedily implemented a new series of activity sheets for kids, and three or four new ones will be uploaded each week. These activities are designed to be both fun and practical. “They just rely on everyday stationery items,” Ryan explains, “We understand that for many, it’s a pretty full house. So you don’t want to cause too much chaos with transforming the whole home into an art studio.”

Many of the NGV activity sheets for kids are designed as games that can be played together, or as cards or messages that can be shared virtually with other friends or family members who might be isolated elsewhere. “I think that’s something I would love to see come out of this,” says Ryan, “that art is for everyone and that it can be shared and it can be something that you do together.”

Michele Stockley, head of education and learning at NGV, explains that their virtual excursions (aimed primarily at high school teachers and their students) have recently become incredibly popular. Even though they take place online these tours are delivered live by an educator, a fact Stockley says is key to their success. “There is still human interaction,” she points out. “And I think in the current situation that is really important.”

Adults might like to work together with friends (while in their own homes) by scheduling a video-call and simultaneously taking a drawing class by accessing NGV’s new four-part Drop-by Drawing classes led by local artists in the empty gallery spaces.

The importance of coming together, even when we are apart, is central to a new online activity at QAGOMA. This institution is already known for its extensive programs for kids, but Tamsin Cull, head of public engagement, also acknowledges the important role the gallery plays for adults. “We know that for so many people, visiting the gallery is a big part of their social, cultural and intellectual existence. We also know that a big part of public programs is connecting with other people in real-time.”

As part of their ongoing Quiet series (which will include online video yoga and meditation sessions for both kids and adults from the end of April) the gallery will be offering live ‘slow looking’ workshops in which participants will work together with others online, in real-time. This program, which is aimed at adults and is still in development, is titled Mindful Eye-Playful Eye and will be led by two authors who have written on mindfulness and art: Michael Garbutt and Nico Rönpagel. Their first workshop will launch on 5 May.

A whole new suite of online offerings by AGNSW is called Together in Art. Under this umbrella they have launched activities aimed at both children and adults, all of which can be undertaken either solo, or with friends and family in the same household or in a virtual space.

For kids, new activities include short art classes with well-known artists and their younger family members. New video-based lessons are launched each Sunday and include how to make a Dada poem with Tony Albert and his niece, and a lesson in portraiture with Ben Quilty and his daughter.

Meanwhile AGNSW film curator Ruby Arrowsmith invites adults to watch her online film festival of historic artists’ flicks, Tiny Wonders. Justin Paton, head of international art, describes it as “a miniature film program that features five very short films about very small things. Perfect for a moment when we’re all in our small worlds and maxed out with screen time.”

Like so many others, people working in our big art museums are making the most of their changed circumstances. They are taking the opportunity to both innovate and rethink how they connect to us, the wider public, and how art connects all of us to each other.

As Kate Ryan puts it, “we hope there is this discovery that art can be a place where everyone can come together” even when the galleries are closed. Justin Paton says that our current situation has, for him engendered “a sharpened sense of the preciousness of life and the importance of art museums as places to celebrate it.” Tamsin Cull seems to speak for them all when she says, “The message that we want people to know is that we are still here, and that we are still working for them; we are still looking for ways to stay connected.”

And the highlights mentioned above are just a small selection of the many ways we can stay actively connected with our public art galleries, and each other, while we stay home.

Tracey Clement