The Nasher Museum of Art is no longer just the modern, glass encased building on Campus Drive. It’s the gates of the Duke Gardens, the poles on the C1 route and the windows of the American Dance Festival studio, Rubenstein Arts Center and bus station downtown on Chapel Hill Street. “RESIST COVID/TAKE 6!” is the ongoing Nasher exhibit by artist Carrie Mae Weems, and it is unlike anything the museum has taken on before. These locations are just some of the 40 plus banners and posters around Duke and in the Durham community which celebrate frontline workers, display COVID-19 public health reminders and highlight the disproportionate impact COVID-19 has on people of color. The exhibit has taken on a number of partners since its start, including the American Dance Festival (ADF).
Weems, who has a long-standing relationship with the Nasher and whose work is featured in the Nasher’s permanent collection, came to the Nasher’s Director Trevor Schoonmaker with the idea over the summer. She recognized that museums would not be open in the fall and needed to pivot.
“We were lamenting that the building looked like it was asleep...Her email came at the most perfect moment for the Nasher,” said Director of Engagement and Marketing Wendy Hower.
Being an outdoor, sporadic, and community based exhibit is not the only thing that separates “RESIST COVID/TAKE 6!” from the rest of the Nasher’s exhibitions. Partnering with Duke Arts and Duke Health marked the first collaboration of its kind in the Nasher’s over 15 year history. The exhibit had no opening event, and Duke’s name is not on any of the work.
“The art is speaking for itself. It’s not about Duke doing this beautiful thing in the world; it’s about art doing a beautiful thing in the world,” said Hower. “The Carrie Mae Weems project was such a perfect fit in no small part to the content. Fighting racism, fighting a pandemic, getting the word out about how the pandemic is disproportionately hitting people of color — it’s where art can really make a difference.”
The exhibit introduced the Nasher staff to new potential partners across campus and in Durham, and it changed the way the Nasher approached community outreach, seeking to make deeper connections with partners than before the pandemic. The prime example of this has spawned one of the museum’s most exciting projects for this spring semester. The American Dance Festival (ADF) had to cancel their festival this year, so their director, Jodee Nimerichter, put out a call for NC Dancers to perform outdoors in front of the Carrie Mae Weems exhibition locations. This call netted 17 dancers whose performances will be shared on social media and made available virtually this semester.
“We really wanted ADF to feel like it was their project. It creates more synergy if we don’t have the Nasher or Duke name all over it. This is art we are responding to through movement. It is more exciting to the partners if they are creating something new; it’s actually original art being created in response to this exhibition. And, it’s much more fun for partners to do that than to cross-promote whatever the Nasher Museum is doing,” said Hower.
No in-person events are scheduled for the spring due to COVID-19, but the Nasher still has plenty in store in addition to “RESIST COVID/TAKE 6!” and the ADF collaboration. Drop-in hours Thursday afternoons starting February 25th will mark the first in-person visitors to the Nasher since March. While there is no registration required for drop-in hours, class visits will begin again by appointment only on February 8th. Like in the fall, the museum plans on posting virtual gallery talks on their website and social media channels.
Even after the pandemic, the Nasher plans to continue changing museum practices. The museum will now have a virtual component for everything moving forward, including at least three virtual 360 tour exhibitions a year available on their website. In addition, there will be more of an emphasis on collaborating with Duke professors and integrating the collection into the curriculum. This is already underway across various fields, with undergraduate dance students and graduate documentary students working on responding to “RESIST COVID/TAKE 6!” as part of their coursework this semester. In the fall, the Rhythm and Blues course made annotated playlists related to Weems’ exhibition.
“We are really striving to amplify the scholarly work that facility and students are doing with our collections, and we are learning new ways to showcase that work,” said Hower.
What the Nasher has been able to do this year with staff working from home and a shuttered museum is incredibly impressive. However, it has not been easy.
“We can do a lot of exciting new things with very few resources. We can do a lot of new and exciting things with the existing staff,” but as Hower put it bluntly, “We’re embracing this time of innovation and curiosity and learning how to do new things in the digital realm with no additional money.”
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With a renewed commitment to innovative programming and community collaborations, the Nasher Museum has adapted to the challenges of COVID-19 and a constrained budget. An exciting semester and future for the museum seem all but certain.