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Earlier this year as quarantine fell upon the US, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and its satellite contemporary art space the Momentary, both located in Bentonville, Arkansas, wanted to determine how best to help their region’s vulnerable communities and bridge the inequity gap created by the effects of COVID-19.
After speaking with several community partners and assessing resources, we identified the need to foster connections with vulnerable, isolated groups, such as patients in hospitals and residents in senior care facilities.
The result was a Social Connecting Campaign, the components of which included a community-wide postcard campaign with art kits which delivered over 3,600 postcards with messages of hope, commissioned original artwork by nine local artists, and an art exhibition that traveled to 22 sites around Northwest Arkansas, made possible by the museum’s partnership with University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS)’s Community Health and Research team and Schmieding Center for Senior Health and Education.
As more organizations look for ways to connect with their local communities in the era of social distancing and beyond, museums may consider low-cost, high-impact projects that align with their mission, mobilize community members and partners to get involved, and spread messages of hope, comfort, and creativity, as outlined in the steps here.
As Crystal Bridges and the Momentary assessed how to best help the community during quarantine, they turned to their community partners―an assortment of regionally based organizations from a variety of industries that weigh in on community needs. The need for a Social Connecting Campaign was realized through a series of community listening sessions with partners from UAMS’s Community Health and Research team and Schmieding Center for Senior Health and Education.
Community partners raised concerns about the negative effects of isolation for seniors, healthcare workers, and hospital patients. They were enthusiastic about using the arts to provide comfort and joy during this difficult time and to support mental health and well-being. This need aligned with the Crystal Bridges’ mission and resources, thereby making it a great opportunity to pursue.
As team members brainstormed meaningful ways of connecting the public and those most isolated during this time, their minds turned to one of the most reliable and appreciated forms of communication: postcards. In an effort to support local artists, the team reached out to local artists to create designs for the postcards and a temporary art exhibition that would be displayed at selected facilities.
Nine local artists were commissioned to create an original artwork inspired by the word “TOGETHER.” The artists included Kenny Arredondo, Stacy Bates, Kinya Christian, Tram Colwin, Leana Fischer, Octavio Logo, Matt Miller, Hannah L. Newsome, and Alan Rodriguez. You can learn more about each artist here.
Their designs were inspired by images of strength in nature, memories of cherished time with family, and appreciation for frontline workers. The interpretations range from personal reflections on the word and separation from family and friends to broad messages of hope in coming back together again with love.
In fact, you can listen to some of the artists speaking about their work in this video:
Once the postcard designs were created, Crystal Bridges and the Momentary put the word out via social media and eNewsletters to let the local community know about the project and invite participation. The public was asked to pick up a bundle of postcards, color in the artists’ line drawings and write messages of hope to those living and working in healthcare facilities across Northwest Arkansas. Once completed, the postcards were returned to Crystal Bridges, and the team included the personalized postcards in creativity kits that were distributed to patients and staff around the area.
Local community organizations such as public libraries, non-profit support organizations, and individuals in the Northwest Arkansas community mobilized their friends, families, and neighbors to write and color the postcards. Crystal Bridges and Momentary staff, members, and volunteers were also a huge support to the campaign, from assisting in distribution to hosting virtual postcard coloring parties with family and friends.
Virtual Postcard Party
In June, Crystal Bridges hosted a virtual public program, a Postcard Coloring Party, to connect some of the postcard artists directly with community members. The program provided connection between artists and the community as the artists discussed their inspiration for the designs and led guests through a few coloring techniques.
Traveling Art Exhibition
The second part of the Social Connecting Campaign consisted of a temporary art exhibition that traveled to 9 hospitals and 13 senior citizen facilities around the Northwest Arkansas region for one day displays at each location. Each of the nine artists painted large-scale colorful versions of their postcard drawings.
Each drawing was brought to life on a 4×8-foot board. These murals were attached to a freestanding, custom-made support, created by Crystal Bridges’ preparatory team. Patients and staff were able to spend a moment with the works installed outdoors. Art kits were also distributed to encourage creativity while in isolation―kits which included a returned colored postcard from someone in the community!
“The response from all involved has been overwhelming, and it’s brought joy to the lives of those most affected by this pandemic…This campaign demonstrates the excellence, generosity, and strong sense of service found here in Northwest Arkansas.” – Ayoola Carleton, Assistant Director of Research, UAMS Northwest Regional Campus
By the end of the campaign, Crystal Bridges and the Momentary were able to provide completed postcards and art kits to every patient, staff member, and senior citizen in the 9 hospitals and 13 senior citizen facilities who participated. They are also organizing a public viewing of the postcard exhibition at the Momentary, August 4-16, and at Crystal Bridges, August 18-31.
As the Social Connecting Campaign winds down, the museum intends to continue cultivating relationships with the partner organizations and local artists who have contributed to the project’s success. After all, the campaign would not have been possible without their input and advocacy. Museums offer hope and inspiration especially in trying times, but without community partners, this impact will never extend beyond the physical boundaries of museum galleries.
Erica Harmon is a copywriter at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art
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