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The Columbus Museum's Road to Recovery: Q&A with Marianne Richter

Updated: Jul 21, 2020

In this installment of our series on the local state of the arts amidst the COVID-19 crisis, Marianne Richter, Director of The Columbus Museum, discusses how their staff has worked to mitigate the crisis and have managed to re-open July 15.

Read on to learn about the most recent developments at our community's museum, what to expect the next time you visit, and the promise their staff works to uphold every day.

Q: What has been happening at The Columbus Museum amidst the COVID-19 pandemic?

A: The first thing people need to know is that we re-opened on July 15. When we closed back in March, we reviewed our exhibition schedule and changed dates so that the exhibitions we had planned would simply be delayed and not cancelled.

Many of the exhibitions we had scheduled to open this Spring are now happening either as we re-open or as we move into the Fall. We haven’t had to cancel anything. We’ve just rearranged our schedule to take into account the fact that we were going to be closed for awhile.

Q: How did you determine the best course for your planning processes?

A: We actually created multiple schedules because we simply didn’t know when we would be able to re-open to the public. We had a scenario for May, June, July, and August. We ended up landing on July, but we had those other possibilities planned out so that we’d make sure that no matter what, we’d be ready.

Q: What was the most challenging thing about making plans to re-open?

A: For any organization wanting to re-open with safety protocols for the public, much of the challenge lies within the fact that there are an awful lot of things you need to order before you can begin to prep your space. At first, there was a shortage of things which only added to the complexity of preparations. But that has improved overall now.

Q: How did your staff assist with preparations?

A: One area in which we’re very fortunate is the fact that we have staff members who are talented in designing and building custom things for us. Many organizations will have to install a Plexiglas barrier between the visitor and the person working at the counter. Due to the experience our staff has in design and installation, we were able to do that ourselves. We simply had to order the materials, but we were able to do a lot of the work ourselves. Marcolm Tatum who is our graphic designer, came up with the graphic design for our signage.

The idea that our staff is so talented and well-equipped to handle much of what we needed was a real positive for us during this time. We certainly have made a real pivot, but it’s made an enormous difference to be able to utilize the skills we have on staff that we already use on a regular basis. We've worked to adopt safety protocols and have taken the Columbus C.A.R.E.S. Pledge to ensure our visitors can join us again in as safe of an environment as possible.

Q: That’s amazing. How do you think being an art museum, as opposed to a performing arts venue, impact your experience mitigating the crisis?

A: One of the biggest challenges is that museums – as with theaters – are places that people normally are planning to visit in person. Obviously, during the past few months, that’s been impossible. To allow our visitors to continue interacting with the Museum, we created the Virtual Museum which really did quite well. In fact, so well that we plan to keep going with it.

Q: Really? That’s wonderful news.

A: Yes. We realized through this experience that we could have been doing more of this type of programming to begin with. That realization has been a silver lining out of this time. Virtual museum experiences serve people who either for distance reasons or other limitations cannot come to the Museum in person. We’re really thinking of online content as existing in its own right, not just serving as a reflection of what we are doing on site. We’re excited to continue exploring these possibilities in the future.

Q: Are you doing on site programming yet?

A: Not just yet. For now, our Virtual Museum will continue to encompass our programs until it appears that the pandemic numbers in our community allow us to safely bring people back for group activities.

I have to say that the staff at the Museum is so professional and willing to go the extra mile to make things happen. Most of us were working harder than ever even when we were working from home. This was because we were having to learn how to do all of this. We had education people and curatorial working very hard on our online content, and then our other staff members simultaneously prepping the building. Our marketing director, Bridgette, is really fantastic at what she does as well. So it’s a really great and really talented group of people.

The good part of this is that it’s provided us with a tremendous amount of learning experiences. I think that’s true of any organization who are dealing with all of this. It’s been amazing to watch our staff pivot as needed and make things happen.

Q: How have your hours or services changed upon re-opening?

A: We have lessened our hours at least for the summer. We’ll see how it goes, and we’re willing to adjust, but we’re thinking we’ll have fewer visitors overall for now. We did have people right from the start. We had twenty-five visitors on the day we opened. Which, for five hours on a weekday in the summer with all things considered, I thought was a good show. This weekend, we’re expecting more.

Q: What exhibitions are currently running?

A: We have several exhibitions that were being installed as we had to close. So they’re new to the public, but not as new to us who’ve been in the building. We’re excited about the exhibition And So She Did: Women of the Chattahoochee Valley. It commemorates the anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment which was ratified in the summer of 1920, one hundred years ago. It looks at the role of women in our community, and not just in terms of political leaders. It looks at civic leaders, women in the military, influencers in arts & culture, law enforcement, and those in education. We love this celebration of local trail-blazing women. Rebecca Bush, our Curator of History, was the organizer for that exhibition and it’s sponsored by Aflac.

We also have an exhibition called Nancy Freedman-Sánchez: Casta Paintings. That came

from an exhibition that was at The Utah Museum of Contemporary Art. She is an artist

from Colombia that was looking at paintings that were done in the period of 18th century

Colonial Spain that were done in the New World and then sent back to Spain. These powerful large-scale paintings and drawings of Friedemann-Sánchez allude to minimalism and the decoration movement while using the aesthetics of Spanish Moorish tiles found on buildings in her native Colombia. It’s a fascinating exhibit and the work is just beautiful. This exhibit was also sponsored by Aflac.

We’re about to open another exhibit called Mystery Science Museum 3000. The title is inspired by the old TV show Mystery Science Museum 2000. Rebecca Bush also did this exhibit, and it takes a look into two doctor’s kits that were used in the Chattahoochee Valley by two physicians in the early 20th century. We still have Doctor Is In running until August 9th, so there’s a window of time where you could explore both of these exhibits that compliment each other well.

Q: You also have some wonderful exhibits coming up soon. I have a few I’m really looking forward to seeing.

A: Yes, we do. In August we have an exhibition opening that’s called From the Murky Waters of the Chattahoochee by Andrea Dezcö. With the help of Aflac, we have commissioned this internationally renowned artist to create a project in respose to Columbus and its environs. She’ll be filling the Galleria cases with life-size “tunnel books” that show her imagining of what the depths of the Chattahoochee River might look like. If you look on our website, you can see some of the images she’s shared with us so far, and it just looks like it’s going to be stunning.

Q: It’s nice to have some positive things to look forward to in the arts this Fall. How have you all managed to put up so many incredible things amidst a global pandemic?

A: One of the things that’s really aided us during this time is that we are a museum that’s built around maintaining free admission. There are a number of us in this community that are facing economic challenges due to the economic impact of the pandemic. Working to ensure our museum is a place where you can come free of charge has always been very important to the Columbus Museum. Right now, we’re seeing how essential it is for local individuals to come and enjoy the arts free of charge. It’s given people something to do again.

It also helps that because we’re free of charge, I think people know they can come and go as they feel comfortable. With so many venues around the world, you pay an admission price and feel as though you have to “get your money’s worth” and stay all day. It’s simply not the case with our museum. We’re seeing people come in and view one or two things and then leave, because they may not be comfortable lingering for hours right now. We understand that, and we encourage people to come and go as they’re comfortable and know that admission to our space is always free.

Our gardens are also open. I’d suggest morning and evening due to the heat, but I’d like for people to know that they’re more than welcome to come and enjoy our outside spaces as well. You don’t have to come in if you’re not ready yet. Just find a shady spot and enjoy a quiet sit in the gardens.

Q: How has your staff worked to ensure that your free admission policy remains in tact through this crisis?

A: We have worked very hard on grants for a number of things. Several of the grants we received were for general operations or specific programs. However, there are some exceptions.

Jonathan Frederick Walz, our Director of Curatorial Affairs and our Curator of American Art, is one of two curators for an exhibition we’re working to organize called Alma W. Thomas Life is Beautiful. He’s doing that exhibit with a gentleman named Seth Feman, Deputy Director for Art and Interpretation and Curator of Photography at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Va. Between the two of them, they’ve been applying for grants for this project. The exhibit will open at the Chrysler Museum of Art and then also travel to the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. and the Frist Art Museum in Nashville before it comes to Columbus in the summer of 2022. The catalogue going with it will be beautiful and we are producing that with Yale University Press and Lucia I Marquand Publishers. It’s going to be an incredible exhibit. Jonathan wrote a grant for the Andy Warhol Foundation to support the exhibition and catalogue. We learned in late June that we’d received the grant for $100,000. That was a fantastic day.

Q: I’d imagine so!

A: We have also applied for grants from Georgia Humanities and Georgia Council for the Arts. When the CARES Act passed, it included funds that went to the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts. They then were directed to apply those funds to the state agencies, and some funds you could apply for to them directly. For the Humanities, we received a CARES Act grant from Georgia Humanities. The National Endowment for the Arts requested that the only organizations to apply to them directly were to be ones had received a NEA grant in the past four years. We qualified for that application because we had received a NEA grant for the public sculpture that went along with our Warren Williams Homes oral history project. The CARES Act portion we applied for with the NEA was only for salary support, and we learned just a few weeks ago that we are one of only a few organizations in Georgia that would be receiving the grant. Every amount will be the same. They’ve donated $50,000 to each organization. That was, again, a really great day when we learned that.

Upon receiving that grant, it made us understandably ineligible to receive any Georgia Council for the Arts grants. They elected to save that money for people who did not receive the NEA funding.

That being said, Georgia Council for the Arts has grants every year for education grants. We applied for those and earlier this month, we received word that we would be a recipient of an education grant from them as well.

So, grant writing wise it’s been a great few months. I have to say again how much of a tremendous job our staff has done to mitigate as much as possible in the last few months. Those that were not working on preparing the building for reopening were putting a lot of time and effort into writing these grants.

Another thing I do want to mention, though not a grant, is that our staff received an award from The American Association for State and Local History. They are a national membership organization dedicated to history preservation at museums and other venues around the nation. Every year, they give awards and we were selected to receive their Award of Excellence for Leadership in History. In the state of Georgia, the only other organization to receive an award this year was the Atlanta History Center. It was just the two of us.

In this case, the award was the result of great leadership by Rebecca Bush, our Education Department, particularly Kennan Ducey, Sherricka Day and Lila Stone on the special project, Making Conversations with Warren Williams Homes. The award was given to us based on the work we did on that oral history project and exhibition. We had programming regarding genealogy, oral history, children's programming, the public sculpture, and events surrounding the exhibition. The Knight Foundation at the Community Foundation of the Chattahoochee Valley, and the National Endowment for the Arts made this project possible.

Q: I am so impressed with the work of your staff to ensure that the Columbus Museum will continue to be able to offer high-quality arts & culture experiences for free to our community. That speaks to your leadership and to the hard work of your entire team. In addition, you’re work is putting Columbus on the map. You’re collaborating with some of the finest organizations in the nation. I’m proud to live in a community where we have leaders in place who are working this hard to continue providing access to the arts for everyone in our city. I can’t thank you enough.

A: It is our pleasure. I mean, this museum is the community’s museum and we are very aware of that. I think you probably also saw that we were able to give out activity kits to students through the Housing Authority. We had been doing work on site and when we couldn’t continue, we created activity booklets that we distributed to the students that were coming to the school district for free lunch both here and in Phenix City.

We felt really great about being able to offer those to our local children. We had some very generous individuals and some grants that made it possible. Special thanks to the generosity of Rotary Club of Columbus and the Office of Crime Prevention for participating with us in these efforts.

Q: Thank you for leading by example with how to lean in during this time. Local students having access to the arts during quarantine meant that they’ve experienced how the arts can impact them.

A: It was very important for us to do that. We know that this time has been very stressful on families. Especially those who suddenly had children at home all day. Some of those children had to miss the opportunities they typically have to make art because they no longer had access to a classroom to do so. We saw a very real need for these students to have the chance to make art, and we tried our best to meet that need with the help of our partners.

Our education department has done an incredible job of exploring ways that we could reach students and families during this time. The bottom line is that we all have to get through this together, and we’re doing our best to help.

We will continue to look for grants to apply for as we move further into the year. Receiving current grants helps better our chances for future grants, both because it provides a portfolio of projects for us to show how we’ve used past funding, and because it helps our staff hone our skills for grant writing in general. So, while it’s been a great season of grant writing for us, we will continue to push forward in the coming months and years to improve our programming.

Q: Is there anything else that you’d like our audience to know?

A: Please just come and enjoy our Museum. It’s yours. It belongs to the community, and many of us are working hard to make it available to you.

We’re going to continue our work. We’re going to continue finding ways to adapt – to be scrappy. We’ll continue to add to our Virtual Museum so that everyone has a chance to feel some sort of engagement with us even if they can’t visit in person. We’ll keep doing our work to ensure we can continue to offer free admission to the Museum. Please come and see us when you’re comfortable to do so. We'll be here, and we look forward to seeing you. ◼︎

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