Illustration Denise Nestor.
The 2020–21 issue of Art in America’s Annual Guide, released in December 2020, includes interviews with museum directors about how they responded to the Covid-19 pandemic. Considered among the preeminent university art museums in the United States, the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas at Austin is also home to the largest collection in Central Texas, with particular strengths in modern and contemporary American and Latin American art. Simone Wicha was appointed director in 2011, having previously served as the museum’s deputy director for external affairs and operations and its director of development. When the Blanton temporarily closed in March due to Covid-19, Wicha found ways to redeploy resources in order to avoid staff layoffs.
I felt that it was really important to keep our team together during the initial months of the pandemic, even though certain positions or tasks were not going to be needed while our doors were closed. Since we weren’t going to be able to invite visitors into the galleries to see our exhibitions, we had to figure out what other work we could do together as a museum. I asked managers to identify projects that could be done remotely, that perhaps had been on the back burner or that we hadn’t previously had the time and staff resources to tackle: for instance, updating our collection database and artist records with new research and adding alt text to images to make our website more accessible for visually impaired people. Now that the museum has reopened, staff members have mostly gone back to their usual jobs, welcoming visitors and installing exhibitions, but we’re still doing some of that cross-departmental work.
Part of the Blanton’s role is to be a teaching museum for the University of Texas and the Austin community. Typically, we have 18,000 or more UT students a year coming in with faculty, and 20,000 K-12 students from Austin schools, so we’ve had to think about how we can still remain committed to that teaching mission while we aren’t having any public programming or group visits in the galleries. One of the challenges is that our educational programming is normally very responsive: we’ll adapt our teaching based on faculty members’ lesson plans, or particular topics they want to focus on, and have conversations with students in the galleries. Since we can’t get on Zoom calls with every single class, we organized a series of roundtables over the summer with faculty from disciplines across campus to help us think through what we could provide in place of that one-on-one class experience. In response to their feedback, our education and marketing teams have been working together to develop digital programs and find ways to provide these resources in ways we hadn’t done before.
For me, the biggest difficulty has been the ambiguity and uncertainty. We do our best work when we’re able to plan, and we’re being confronted with a lot of things we’ve never had to think about before, which causes a lot of stress and anxiety. There’s the need to reinvent even the smallest details: how do you install works of art safely, how do you organize the galleries to allow more room for social distancing? But it’s also an opportunity, because rethinking things builds strength. Technology is allowing us to reach new audiences during this time, and to make our educational resources available to teachers all over the country, not just in Austin.
For the past three years, we’ve been working on a major master-planning project for the Blanton’s grounds with the architecture firm Snøhetta. We were very fortunate that we’d completed most of the fundraising and were in the final stages of that project when the pandemic hit. It was unusual to wrap this up digitally, but it’s been a rewarding experience: at a moment when we’ve had to navigate a lot of day-to-day challenges, we’re also shepherding a bright, exciting future for the museum, which gives us something to look forward to.