On a sunny afternoon outside the Veterans Affairs Hospital in Fayetteville, Arkansas, Linda Duck stood admiring several 4x8-foot murals installed outside the entrance to the healthcare facility.
Linda, wearing a face mask and scrubs, was among dozens of hospital staff and patients being honored with this temporary art exhibit, a tribute produced by Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and the Momentary.
The nine murals ranged in style, from images of people reaching out to touch each other’s shoulders, to a father and son playing chess on a picnic table. All were created to communicate the same theme: ‘Together.’
The exhibit was part of a Social Connecting Campaign launched by Crystal Bridges and the Momentary in response to the COVID-19 crisis. The initiative also includes a postcard campaign aimed at bringing comfort and joy to patients and healthcare workers feeling stress and isolation.
I spoke with Marissa Reyes, Crystal Bridges’ chief education officer, about the efforts to support the Northwest Arkansas community during the pandemic.
Where did you get the idea for the Social Connecting Campaign?
When Crystal Bridges closed in mid-March, our strategy team at the museum had a conversation about how we could be of service to the community. The museum’s doors may be closed, but we are still embedded in Northwest Arkansas. We reached out to 30-plus community partners and social services organizations and just point-blank asked them, how can we help? There are so many vulnerable groups – people in hospitals, medical workers, senior citizens in assisted-living facilities – who have essentially been on lockdown, who were truly feeling the effects of isolation and loneliness. We know the power of art and creativity in improving mental health. This seemed like a natural way for us to aid those in need.
Tell me more about the postcard campaign and art exhibit. What does it involve?
A group of programmers from Crystal Bridges and the Momentary spent a day and a half brainstorming some ideas. We knew we wanted to work with local artists, to support them at a time when so many have lost work themselves. We wanted local residents to be involved because so many people in the region also want to help. And we wanted to mobilize our staff. We want to signal that the museum’s commitment to art and creativity doesn’t stop even though we are closed. So we convened nine artists and gave them a simple prompt of ‘Together,’ which fits with the vision of the campaign. We asked them to create line drawings to be printed on postcards and large mural versions of those drawings.
What are you doing with the postcards and the murals?
We printed 10,000 postcards and are distributing them to museum staff, members and volunteers, and the public, with the invitation to color the beautiful line drawings and write a message of hope. The museum is distributing them to hospitals and assisted-living facilities, along with a Crystal Bridges art kit.
So people are receiving a postcard from a member of the public, beautiful imagery, some information about the artist and some activities and art materials. With the murals, we have created a traveling art exhibit that will be installed outside 15 different hospitals and senior facilities in the region. The campaign is running through June.
What’s the response been like?
The messages on the postcards have been so inspiring and heartfelt, offering thanks and letting people know they are thinking of them. Some people are sharing their favorite music lyrics. The feedback from the artists has been amazing. This project has made them feel connected to each other. Some of the artists have met for the first time via Zoom meetings. The project has been therapeutic for them. A lot of artists work in solitary environments, and this has been a way for them to give back to the community.
What else is Crystal Bridges doing to support the Northwest Arkansas community during this crisis?
The issues of inequity that existed prior to COVID-19 are even more underscored during the crisis, everything from unemployment, housing insecurity, food insecurity to lack of Internet access. So in addition to the Social Connecting Campaign, we’re providing assistance with food, essential supplies for those experiencing homelessness, information and resource toolkits for those without Internet access, and support for artists by helping them find new platforms. We’ve used the museum’s Great Hall as a staging area for packing and distributing more than 3,000 food boxes to the Northwest Arkansas Food Bank pantry, and to families unable to access distribution points for free school lunches. The museum is also providing personal hygiene kits to social service organizations serving people who are in homeless shelters or shelters for people enduring domestic violence.
How important is art in these community outreach efforts?
With every postcard and food meal food kit distributed, we include an art kit. With every personal hygiene kit, we are also sending out these creativity kits. They have become a calling card for the museum. We have distributed something like 6,000 art kits altogether. We may be stuck at home but they give us something creative to do that is beautiful and inspirational.