After a year of uncertainty, Richmond museums adjust to reopening while maintaining safety

Odili Donald Odita (American, born 1966), Procession, 2020. Courtesy Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Photo by Travis Fullerton, © 2020 Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

Sahara Sriraman, Spectrum Editor

Art institutions in Richmond have begun reopening and preparing exhibits in the midst of increased vaccine distribution. The COVID-19 pandemic caused these institutions to limit visitors and alter exhibits and events in the past year.

The Institute for Contemporary Art is planning to carefully advance with the in-person events they have planned for the semester, such as lectures, exhibits and poetry readings, according to Michael Lease, the director of facilities and experience design for the ICA. If capacity limits become required, the museum will offer hybrid versions of events.

“Given the news, we’re being cautious and not trying to pack lots of folks into the building. But with that said, we have a facility that is incredibly spacious, clean, and safe, and we’re eager to see students, faculty, and staff return to the ICA this semester,” Lease stated in an email.

By following all safety instructions set forth by VCU and Virginia and maintaining an advanced heating, ventilation and air conditioning system, the museum is continuing to keep COVID-19 cases under control, according to Lease.

“We hope the VCU community feels welcome to take in our exhibitions, post up alone, or with friends, to study, or have meetings,” Lease stated.

On Aug. 9, VCU announced an indoor mask requirement for all students and faculty to wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status. The university’s guidelines include required vaccine reports through University Student Health Services, daily health surveys for unvaccinated students and asymptomatic surveillance testing for all unvaccinated on-campus students.

Virginia is also requiring masking indoors for everyone “in areas of substantial and high transmission.”

“We enjoyed the brief period when the world felt safe and COVID-19 seemed to be ebbing, and we fully support the return to the masking requirements,” Lease stated.

Starting July 2021, the ICA has been open six days a week, compared to a previous schedule of three days a week. The ICA is now holding some exhibitions in person, while also distributing photos and videos of the exhibits online as a virtual option. 

The ICA follows the instructions of Gov. Ralph Northam, VCU’s Public Health Response Team and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, along with guidance from Virginia and the VCU Health System. Lease stated that the ICA will continue to do so as the number of Richmond residents increases.

“We have been closely following state and university guidelines since all of this began and are happy to report that we’ve had very, very few cases among staff and visitors,” Lease stated.

“It was messy and a lot of the actual fun of learning how to be an actor and learning how to do your actual craft was taken out of it because it was online.” – Makai Walker

Similarly, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts has been following both Northam’s and Richmond’s instructions and will continue to do so. The museum closed from March 14 to July 1 of last year and reopened July 4. 

Some of the safety rules the museum will continue to implement include required face masks, regularly sanitized facilities and hand-sanitizing stations.

The VMFA is planning to hold completely in-person events such as galleries, art shows and interactive exhibitions with limited capacity.

The VCUarts department adjusted to the COVID-19 pandemic by hosting virtual events like guided meditations, Instagram live exhibition tours, artist interviews and virtual galleries of student art, according to VCUarts associate director of print and digital content Kim Catley stated via email.

“From a programming perspective, the ‘silver lining’ of the pandemic has been the opportunity to try new things. In some cases, these were ideas we’d been considering for a long time, but hadn’t yet pursued,” Catley stated.

In terms of VCUarts’ plans for making adjustments due to the delta variant and safety precautions, the school will be following all instructions and guidelines set forth by VCU, according to Catley.

She also stated that VCUarts will most likely limit the number of people in a building or gallery, especially as the number of visitors increases this fall.

“In proportion with the severity of those limitations, we will add virtual and other supplementary means of access to ensure that our artists can continue to share their vision, and that their audiences can continue to be inspired,” Catley stated.

VCUarts is planning on having various in-person events this fall including an international arts conference, public exhibitions and book launches, according to Catley.

Makai Walker, a theater performance junior, said that before the pandemic their experience with VCUarts was interactive and hands-on. They said after VCU sent students home last spring, classes weren’t as organized and collaborative, especially for theater classes.

“It was messy and a lot of the actual fun of learning how to be an actor and learning how to do your actual craft was taken out of it because it was online,” Walker said.

Walker also said while their fall classes were all online, their spring classes were hybrid, so they were able to do more in-person learning. They said all their classes this semester are in person, which Walker is excited about.

“This whole summer, this past year became so much about the kind of artist I want to be. And going into this semester, I just have more confidence in my own abilities,” Walker said. “I have more faith in knowing I can handle it and I can do it.”

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