The Arkell Museum in Canajoharie was forced to cancel many in-person programs and events in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic–including the museum’s musical performance series. Curator of Education and Public Engagement Mary Alexander wanted to continue these successful events despite the pandemic. She created a virtual musical art exhibition in partnership with the Caroga Arts Collective who brought professional musicians together with museum staff to create a dynamic, virtual musical and art experience.
Public Programming Shift
The Arkell Museum’s extensive collection of American paintings from the mid 19th century to the early 20th century includes seven oil paintings by Winslow Homer. The museum’s exhibitions feature selections from its Mohawk Valley History collection. Prior to 2020, the museum’s on site programming included book talks, presentations, summer reading programs, storytelling sessions, family days, and musical performances. “We would try to do three or four musical performances a year and connect them to the collection,” said Alexander. In 2019, the museum created a musical program to coincide with the bicentennial anniversary of the Erie Canal and the museum’s “Mingling the Waters: 200 years on the Erie Canal” exhibition. The museum also capitalized on the success of Broadway’s “Hamilton” and presented “Eliza” (a musical narrative of the formative years of Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton) arranged and performed by the Musicians of Ma’alwyck.
In 2020, the museum moved most of its public programming online. “We increased our social media, shared images from our visiting exhibitions online, and our librarian did a weekly virtual storytelling session,” said Alexander. “In July I started hosting a ‘Let’s Talk Art’ biweekly Zoom chats about art in our collection.” As Alexander moved these programs online, she began to scroll through her social media feeds searching for program inspiration. “I was scrolling and wondering what else the museum could do and came across one of those viral videos of people playing music but in different locations. I thought that was cool.”
A Musical Partnership
In June, Alexander approached one of their musical partners, Caroga Arts Collective. “We had the program funding to use but we couldn’t host an in-person event. That was when the idea to do something with Caroga Arts came to me. Everyone is hurting right now because of the pandemic, but one of those sectors that is hurting the most is the performing arts. You can come to the museum and look at a painting and remain socially distant, but you really can’t attend a concert,” said Alexander. Alexander contacted Kyle Price, Founder and Artistic and Executive Director of Caroga Arts Collective about creating a virtual performance in collaboration with The Arkell Museum. “It helped that the museum already had a working relationship with Kyle and Caroga Arts,” said Alexander. “Kyle works with artists from across the country who normally spend their summers playing music around the area [Caroga Lake]. We’ve worked with them in the past, contracting them to come to the museum to perform a chamber music concert. In 2019, we had 90 people attend one of their concerts in the museum.” Alexander spoke with Kyle about the idea of a group of musicians playing music to artwork from the museum collection. Each musician would play separately, the artwork would appear on the screen, and then we’d edit all together and share across the internet. “Caroga Arts was already planning to do a similar virtual experience for the July 4th program. It was helpful to see a program similar to what we wanted to do in advance. I remember writing back to Kyle saying that it was something similar we wanted to do at the museum but with our paintings.”
“A Musical Art Exhibition: Landscapes”
Creating a Musical Art Exhibition
The Arkell Museum and Caroga Arts decided to do two virtual programs. The first focused on the museums’ collection of Winslow Homer paintings. “We worked together to collaborate on what music would work best for which painting. The vision was to imagine the viewer on a journey, walking though Homer’s paintings. It was some back and forth until we finalized which music worked best.” Alexander provided high resolution images of the paintings that were going to be used for the program and sent them to Caroga Arts who arranged accompanying music.
“Seeing the preview for the first musical art exhibition felt great. It was nice working with professionals who could share their expertise and skills,” said Alexander. Caroga Arts has a videographer and they were able to edit the video with the images to put it all together. “In the beginning it was hard to relinquish some control but I had to trust the process. Normally when selecting the images and pairing them to a certain song we would’ve liked to have been in the same room, but due to COVID we couldn’t. Having an established working relationship was important.”
“A Musical Art Exhibition: Winslow Homer”
The first musical art exhibition premiered on October 28. The Caroga Arts Ensemble performed the Grieg Holberg Suite to the Arkell’s Museum’s Winslow Homer Collection.
The second musical art exhibition premiered on December 4 with performances by Cavani String Quartet and pianists Mei-Hsuan Huang and Ester Park.
Both were live streamed on the Caroga Arts and Arkell Museum’s Facebook pages and YouTube Channels.
“Our main goal for these virtual musical art exhibitions was just to see if it could work,” said Alexander. “We had never tried something like this before, so just seeing if this could work was important for us.” Alexander said that the museum would like to have two more musical art exhibitions in 2021. “We could do a better job about identifying our audience. With most of our programs now being held in a virtual space, we are still identifying how our audience is using the internet. We also want to experiment with streaming these programs on other social media platforms.” Both videos can be viewed on the museums and Caroga Arts YouTube Channels and have nearly 900 views already. For Alexander and The Arkell Museum, using their programming funding to employ other artists was important. “Our main goal is always to connect people to our collection and to share it. Having this collaboration during a difficult time to do this was incredibly valuable for both organizations and we found another way to share our collection.”
Watch The Arkell Museum and Caroga Arts’ Musical Art Exhibitions on The Arkell Museum’s YouTube Channel.