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Campus museum offers creative ways to connect

KU museums, arts center develop innovative digital content for audiences during COVID-19 pandemic


At 1 p.m. on a Friday in late March, the Spencer Museum of Art delivered an enthusiastic reminder on its Facebook page: “Art Me Anything is happening NOW!” KU’s treasured art gallery was touting its virtual, hourlong event that prompts users of the social-media platform to post a comment—or even an emoji—requesting an artist, a medium or a subject. In return, Kate Meyer, the museum’s curator of works on paper, responds with a link to one of the more than 45,000 works of art in the Spencer’s vast collection.

Within seconds, the requests rolled in.

Calls for “Dali!” “Puppies!” “Something pink, please!”—even “Cheeseburger”—were soon accompanied by emojis of a fish, a sun and a thunderstorm from participants eager to see what Meyer, g’04, PhD’11, would handpick for them. At the 30-minute mark, there were 101 comments and counting on the popular post.

“Art Me Anything” is just one of the many digital offerings the Spencer Museum of Art created in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which in mid-March prompted the cancellation of all in-person classes and events at KU and closed most buildings, including the museum. 

Two weeks after the temporary shutdown, the museum launched “Spencer Art At Home,” a new online portal that features a trove of virtual events, video and audio content, and engaging and educational resources for students, faculty, staff and art lovers of all ages. Most of the content has been available for years to visitors of the museum’s website, but the new landing page highlights these digital offerings in one convenient, easy-to-access location.

“All of the things that we’re getting to do right now are certainly things that we wanted to do eventually, but we’re on an accelerated timeline” says Jennifer Neuburger Talbott, d’97, g’02, g’03, the museum’s deputy director for operations and innovation. “It’s fun and challenging in that regard, but it’s also intense.”

Ryan Waggoner, a’11, who manages creative services at the museum, calls the “Spencer Art At Home” landing page “our new digital front door.”

“You can’t come into our space right now,” he says, “but here are the offerings that we have for you. And it’s pretty robust. From K through 12 education to curriculum tools for our academic community at KU to an archive of video content that we have featuring artists from the last 10 to 15 years. All that is going to be in one spot, so that’s going to be an exciting, new way for people to engage with us.”

Other campus units have joined the Spencer in providing innovative material for their audiences, including the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics, which rolled out a series of free educational programs and virtual content dubbed “The Digital Dole Institute.”

The institute updates its website each week and sends an e-newsletter to promote its new online offerings, which include video tours of the building and exhibitions, interviews with staff and members of the institute’s Student Advisory Board, audio recordings of oral histories, Facebook Live events and educational workshops for children ages 12 and younger. 

Bill Lacy, director of the institute, said in a video message shortly after the building’s closure that he hopes the new platform will allow visitors to “stay in touch with what we’re up to and to also learn more about the Dole Institute.” 

The KU Biodiversity Institute and Natural History Museum​ also is participating in the “Museum From Home” movement, offering a series of online educational activities, science explorations and virtual events. In addition, the Lied Center of Kansas has hosted Facebook Live events of musical performances that were originally scheduled at the arts center, including Emmet Cohen and Mwenso & the Shakes.

During difficult times, it’s comforting to know that these cherished University spaces are providing much-needed entertainment, creativity and community—on your screen and at your fingertips.

Photos by Ryan Waggoner, Spencer Museum of Art

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