screenshot of a virtual art gallery

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College Galleries Get Creative to Showcase Student Work

A pandemic can’t stop art majors from sharing their work with their campuses—and the world

Art is best appreciated up close and in person. Viewing a high-resolution scan of a painting online or interacting with a three-dimensional digital model of a sculpture is OK if there’s no other way to see the work. But as the coronavirus pandemic has shuttered museums and galleries, physical experiences with art have become impossible. And thanks to social-distancing requirements, remote art appreciation has become the only option to experiencing art.

But while global institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art have the infrastructure to move high-profile exhibitions and retrospectives online, emerging artists have had to improvise. Across the country, colleges—and their art students—have had to find ways to exhibit work and thesis projects digitally.

Some digital gallery exhibitions are as basic as a scroll-down summary of images and artist statements. That’s the case with the Southern Arkansas University’s Student Art Show. The display was originally supposed to go up at the Magnolia Arts Center but instead shifted to its website. Still, juror Thomas F. Morrissey awarded four top honors to the student artists—an element of normalcy in extraordinary times.

a view of the student art on display at magnolia arts in arkansas

Southern Arkansas University/Magnolia Arts

Art from the Second Annual Juried ASU Student Art Show hanging at Magnolia Arts. Because of the pandemic, the only way to see the exhibition is online.

“This show comes at an unfortunate and unique time in our lives, [and it overshadows] the excitement usually associated with an exhibition of this nature,” Morrissey said. “The covid-19 pandemic has provided us all with untold hardships, financial difficulties, and more, perhaps even deaths in our families. … These are difficulties counterbalanced with an unusual opportunity for our own personal growth and development.”

Other schools have tried to be more immersive in their online exhibitions. Virginia’s Sweet Briar College, for example, boasted 11 visual arts seniors in 2020—its largest class since 1981. Their exhibition, “Avant-Garde is Female,” would normally be seen in the school’s Pannell Art Gallery. But the work must be experienced remotely, with visitors able to digitally swoop along the works hanging on the gallery’s walls.

At Stony Brook University, in New York, MFA students Julia Miller and Joseph Santarpia opened an online version of their thesis exhibition, “Presence/Absence,” on April 15 on the school’s Paul W. Zuccaire Gallery website. Among the works featured are paintings, sculptures, and videos and more. To try and replicate interactions with gallery visitors, Miller and Santarpia spent the first week of the digital exhibition speaking to curious art lovers via Zoom.

(Stony Brook also digitally opened its juried Senior Show, exhibiting works by senior art majors and minors, and digital art minors, on May 1.)

Screenshot of the digital exhibition avant-garde is female showing shadow people looking at art hanging on the walls

Sweet Briar College/Parnell Art Gallery

To give viewers a sense of how the Sweet Briar College 2020 senior art exhibition "Avant-Garde is Female" would have looked in person at the Parnell Art Gallery, it was recreated virtually as an interactive gallery show.

Some college galleries have embraced the limitations that have come with the pandemic, featuring digital works designed for the “shelter in place” cultural moment. The University of Maryland Art Gallery, for instance, launched “Pause, Play,” a virtual exhibition online until June 26 featuring three computer-generated video works by Maryland graduate Jonathan Monaghan.

“The covid-19 pandemic has forced the entire world to literally hit the ‘pause’ and ‘play’ buttons,” Taras W. Matla, associate director of the University of Maryland Art Gallery and show curator, said in a statement. “One can no longer experience life and the different types of interactions once enjoyed with each other in the same manner.”

That reality wasn’t lost on the Columbus College of Art & Design, in Ohio. Its Virtual Spring Art Fair, which opened April 10, featured works for sale by both alumni and students. By spending $50, shoppers got a shot at winning a gift certificate for CCAD’s Continuing & Professional Studies classes. But the fair was also a way to encourage visitors to donate to the CCAD Wellness & Support Fund, which organizers explained “will help students who are facing immediate covid-19-related financial hardships continue their education at CCAD—and pursue a future that will benefit us all.”

virtual reproduction of the pfeiffer university student art show, recreating the gallery space with paintings hanging on the walls

Pfeiffer University

A view of the virtual version of North Carolina's Pfeiffer University's 15th annual juried student art exhibition.

Throughout history, art has allowed humans to connect with one another in their own communities and beyond them and to find commonality and solace in difficult times—including pandemics. The role of art in our culture and experience has never been more important, even if that means seeing physical work on screens. And if it takes some ingenuity, all the better.

Art students at Pfeiffer University, in North Carolina, utilized free web hosting services from the German company kunstmatrix.com to pull off a digital exhibition of their work. Associate professor of art Josh Cross said it did digital justice to works originally designed to be experienced in person.

“Students were excited to know that the show would still go on,” Cross told The Stanly News & Press. “Everyone I have heard from that has visited the virtual gallery has been impressed. The students should be proud.