Resolutions abound during January. After a year like 2020, can you blame anyone for setting goals in hopes for a better outcome this year?
But it’s not only people reflecting on how to move forward from the collective nightmare brought on by the pandemic. Cultural institutions are also taking a hard look back and trying to learn from the challenges they endured in 2020 that saw museums, performing art centers, and galleries closed until late fall. And even after they reopened, they’re still faced with the reality of the pandemic that has severely limited crowd sizes, forcing them to think of new ways to reach out to the community.
For two cultural institutions, Oolite Arts and Miami-Dade Public Library’s Vasari Project, an honest reflection was needed to understand how 2020 really impacted their missions and how they needed to push past the challenges to continue supporting the local arts and culture scene.
As a nonprofit organization that supports Miami’s visual arts community through studio residencies, project funding, and programming, Oolite Arts continues to be a strong foundation for many artists to continue developing their practice and creative trajectories. For Dennis Scholl, Oolite Arts’ president and CEO, the past year threatened to rift the relationship the organization has with the arts community.
“So many of the artists in our community have lost jobs and income with COVID-19,” Scholl says. “In March, we decided to pivot and create programs to help them financially. While we continued our community programming online, we focused on finding ways to fund artists, and to help them to continue to create, as they are the backbone of our visual arts community.”
The financial setbacks caused by the pandemic threatened Oolite Arts’s mission to aid artists and their creative endeavors. Still, there was a glimmer of hope.
“In April, we launched and raised money for a $250,000 artist relief fund, created an acquisitions program where we purchase works directly from artists, and also created two commissioning programs for local filmmakers, including a short film festival for works made in quarantine,” Scholl explains. “For Miami Art Week, instead of a traditional exhibition, we launched Materialize, a curated pop-up show and shop, where all the works of art were for purchase, with more than $10,000 in sales going directly to the artists. All of this is in addition to the Ellies, Miami’s visual arts awards, where we annually invest $500,000 in artists and art teachers as a way to elevate their careers. What we found was that, even though there were times when the pandemic weighed very heavily on people, and it still does, artists wanted to create. We are fortunate to be in the position of providing them with the resources they need to do it.”
By quickly adapting, the organization was able to continue providing monetary support to the community.
According to Scholl, Oolite will continue to evolve in 2021.
“The question going forward is, how do we keep those new audiences engaged? And how do we deal with the Zoom fatigue of the moment, where people aren’t as willing to watch a lecture in the evening online if they are able to enjoy activities in person?” Scholl asks. “Once COVID ends, we want to continue with a hybrid of in-person and online programming. Because of traffic issues, people can’t always make it to an event in person at 7 p.m. Finding a good balance in programming will be key.”
Miami-Dade Public Library’s Vasari Project, an archive created in 2000 by art critic and writer Helen Kohen and MDPLS’s former art services manager Barbara Young, works as a living and breathing archive of Miami-Dade’s art history by documenting, collecting, and conserving materials and information on artists, exhibitions, and cultural history. Stephanie Marie Garcia, the head of special collections and archives department for MDPLS and former lead archivist for the Vasari Project, says 2020 was a bittersweet year for the project.
“Despite a challenging 2020 due to COVID-19, the Miami-Dade Public Library System’s Vasari Project marked its 20th anniversary with plenty to celebrate,” Garcia says. “In February 2020, the Vasari Project, based at Main Library in downtown Miami, was relocated to a larger space within the library, allowing us to accommodate new collections and provide a dedicated area for researchers and archivists. Prior to the pandemic, we were able to provide planned programs in January and February, including artist talks and a printmaking workshop. In March 2020, in-library programs were suspended due to the pandemic, and the rest of the planned Vasari Project programming for the year — including collaborations with the Emerson Dorsch Gallery and promotional opportunities with Zine Fair, Miami Book Fair, and Art Basel Miami Beach — had to be postponed.”
During the shutdown, MDPLS redirected the project’s efforts to focus on cataloging the collection to better assist researchers and the general public looking for information about Miami’s art history. It also worked with the library’s digital collection team to digitize unique and rare material from the archive.
“We’re very fortunate to have the Vasari Project as part of the library’s special collections and look forward to continue receiving donated materials from local artists doing great work in our county to add to the collection in 2021,” Garcia explains. “We plan to spread more awareness about the Vasari Project and hope to provide virtual artist talks and workshops for people of all ages.”