Joanna Frang ’01 Thinks Outside the Museum
The executive director of Barrett Art Center in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. discusses keeping art accessible in a time of COVID.
When the country began shutting down last March in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Barrett Art Center Executive Director Joanna Frang ’01 and her team knew they needed to think outside the museum to keep art accessible.
“Art connects us all,” Frang says. “It’s the universal language that binds us. Organizations like ours knew we had to stay connected because we didn’t know how long this would last.”
Within days, Barrett, which is located in Poughkeepsie, N. Y., had its collection online and was looking for new ways to work with artists as well as engage the community.
The initiatives that followed included increasing its web presence with “Barrett@home,” which offered DIY art projects, articles about and video interviews with artists featured in the center’s exhibitions, and virtual tours. The national juried show Earth Works: Art in Ecological Context, which was already installed when the pandemic hit, went on view as a virtual exhibition. When the center was finally able to reopen to visitors in July (with free timed ticketing), it offered Paint: Medium as Power in a Time of Crisis as both a physical exhibition and a virtual gallery. Later in the summer, Barrett launched a CSA (“Community Supported Art”) project that commissioned and sold the works of nine local artists in “shares,” much like the better-known CSA, Community Supported Agriculture.
“It was risky for us to go out and contract with artists, to pay them from the get-go, and hope the community would respond by purchasing art in the middle of a pandemic,” Frang says. “The response was phenomenal. We sold out.”
All of the COVID-19-created programs proved successful, and the museum plans to expand them.
“As much as we love having live artist talks and scheduled events, people are more interested in dipping in when they have the opportunity,” Frang observes. “The game has changed permanently, probably for the better. There are more opportunities to get people involved in person, online, and everywhere in between.”
The Michigan native says she didn’t have a future career planned when she chose Haverford.
“I was looking for a small liberal arts experience that would help prepare me to be a part of the world,” Frang says. “I wasn’t sure what I was going to be, but I knew Haverford had the kind of community I needed to figure that out.” An art history course piqued her interest in the idea of objects bringing people, things, and ideas together. After graduating with a B.A. in history, Frang earned her M.A. at the University of Delaware, taking part in the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture. She completed her doctorate at Brandeis University. Frang joined Barrett in 2016. She wanted to expand its influence, instead of simply convincing locals to cross the museum’s threshold once or twice. Taking advantage of its downtown Poughkeepsie location, museum staff joined block cleanups, hosted events, offered afterschool homework programs, and helped people get library cards.
“We are the anchor of a group of institutions that really need to work together,” she says. “Even though we’re located between a school and a library, the art center might not have been a place everyone thought of. Now it’s a regular stop for many people visiting downtown. That’s something I learned at Haverford. Be the change you want to see. Create the community you want to live in by getting everyone involved.”