Wearing Masks in Museums
On Saturday, July 11, I had the oxymoronic pleasure of enjoying art during a pandemic – a first-time experience, to be sure, and one I’m not entirely sure I wish to repeat, unless the experience can be pulled off as neatly as the one at the Southern Vermont Arts Center (SVAC) in Manchester.
Donned with my mask and armed with tissues for opening metal doors, I attended the opening reception of SVAC’s new exhibition, “Women Take Wilson,” celebrating the 100th anniversary of the women’s right to vote. The exhibition currently features three artists: painter Misoo Bang, of South Burlington; sculptor Sarah Tortora, of Philadelphia; and neon and light artist Lauren Booth, of Connecticut.
As the museum website says: “The artists featured in this exhibition series individually exemplify what it means to be a successful woman artist in today’s society.”
The show spans two of the large galleries in SVAC’s Elizabeth de C. Wilson Museum. Floor stickers direct museum-goers along a one-way route. The “Monumental” exhibit in one of the galleries contains Bang’s breathtaking “Giantess” female portraits and Tortora’s large-scale Greek-inspired multi-media sculptures.
The other main gallery of the Wilson building houses Booth’s “Happy” exhibit of bright neon lights and whimsical crepe paper figures. A site-specific outdoor installation by Booth called “Sunrise” can be found directly outside the Wilson building—32 tree trunks wrapped in colorful scarves hand-knitted by local volunteers.
Despite current circumstances, the reception appeared to be well-attended. With rain holding off, the museum was able to set up the traditional wine and cheese table outside, as well as musical accompaniment with two high school vocalists from nearby Burr and Burton Academy. A masked and gloved server handed wine in disposable cups and pre-portioned plates of cheese and fruit to those in need of refreshments.
The museum has taken a number of steps to ensure health and safety. In addition to the one-way traffic, other precautions include multiple hand sanitizing stations, plexi barriers, and no more interactive elements. Plenty of signs indicate masks are required (as they are in all Manchester establishments), and floor signage helps to keep visitors at six-feet distances. Visitor information sheets are no longer available.
All the adaptations certainly helped to make artist Misoo Bang more comfortable. “I think Southern Vermont Arts Center did a really great job having the arrows indicating for people where to go first and making these one-way signs all over the gallery,” she said in a post-reception interview.
Overall, Bang was pleased with the exhibit and the experience of the reception, even during a pandemic. “I love how everything was calm and the installation was beautiful. The lighting was amazing. I was 100% happy about it,” she said, adding that having spaces to socialize outside really helped.
The only downside, she said, was not being able to have all friends and family attend as they wished to because they didn’t have transportation and couldn’t share rides to the show. Because pandemic.
SVAC Executive Director Anne Corso explained some of the specific Covid-19 changes the museum has made.
“In previous months, we were really happy to offer some visitor amenities, like comfortable seating and little chair pods and places where people could sit down and relax, which in general I feel is the right thing to do,” she said. “But just not at the moment when you’re trying to keep people away from people in their own parties, so it’s maybe slightly a little more stark and a little less homey and comfortable, but I think that safety is absolutely our number one priority.”
Attendance is capped to meet the State of Vermont’s Stay Safe, Stay Smart Order. For the Wilson building, that means attendance is limited to 75. During the time of my visit, there were never more than a dozen people in a gallery at a time. It felt spacious enough.
Corso said that the museum recorded 100 visitors over the course of the afternoon.
Corso has thus far received positive feedback from attendees about the exhibition itself and about the new museum-going experience. Despite the unusual situation, Corso was pleased with how the day turned out and hoped visitors’ time at the museum gave them a little break from the worries of the pandemic.
“For the last couple of months, people’s lives have been so changed, every aspect of their life, from their job to their personal finances to their kids’ education and even the way they go to the grocery store has been drastically, drastically impacted,” Corso said.
“And so if we or other arts organizations in general can offer people a respite from that, if we can offer people a chance to see beauty or to have an engaging experience, or to experience art that’s thought-provoking, we’re honored to be able to do that. I really think the community is hungry for it, just to have another experience, not to escape the pandemic, but to help them think in a different way and have some different conversations.”
Artist Bang echoed the sentiment, particularly with Booth’s “Happy” exhibit. “When I walked through there, it kind of made me forget the pandemic situation just for a little bit,” she said.
“Monumental” and “Happy” run through Aug. 11. The museum is open Tuesday-Saturday 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. and Sunday 12 – 5 p.m.
A second installment of “Women Take Wilson” opens Sept. 5 with “Two Sides of a Dream” by photographer and set designer Adrien Broom and installation by Patty Hudak, “There, Through the Broken Branches, Go.”
SVAC’s other building, the historic Yester House, re-opened for visitors on July 4 with solo exhibitions from artist members. The art work varies from impressionistic 2-d paintings to abstract sculptures, textile arts, photography, and collage.
Situated on 120 acres of forested land, the grounds feature plenty of walking trails as well as an extensive outdoor sculpture park. The campus links directly to Nature Conservancy-owned trails, including one that leads to the summit of Equinox Mountain overlooking Manchester and the surrounding area.
On your way to SVAC, be sure to head to River Road in Pawlet to view the “drive-by, quarantine-friendly, art-in-a-Vermont-hayfield” series from EveNSteve. The exhibit includes several large standing screens featuring photography and artwork of best-selling author Eve O’ Schaub and art photographer Stephen Schaub. The exhibit’s intent is to provide visitors with hope in a time of uncertainty. The couple’s summertime art show at the Vermont Arts Council was canceled due to the pandemic, so they found inspiration instead in the hayfield across from their home. You can drive by or park and walk the mown pathways in the field, for free. Visit their website for more information and directions.
For more information about the Women Take Wilson exhibit at Southern Vermont Art Center, visit the website at www.svac.org