Art in the time of COVID

UC Santa Cruz’s Institute of the Arts and Sciences offers shelter-in-place relief with a new, virtual museum called Art Without Distance, featuring sights, sounds, words, curricula, and even a quirky campus tour

Image of the virtual Collective Museum
Part of the Art Without Distance virtual program is the Collective Museum, an innovative exhibition spread across the UC Santa Cruz campus.

Are you missing the landscape of skyscraper redwoods and lush ferns? The hum of learning? The inspiration of art?

UC Santa Cruz’s Institute of the Arts and Sciences is offering some relief with a new, virtual museum of sights, sounds, words, curricula, and even a quirky campus tour. It’s titled Art Without Distance, and new content will be posted each week. 

“Almost immediately, when I realized classes were going online, I knew the institute had to figure out a way to continue to produce and to have students involved in culture and art,” said Rachel Nelson, interim director of the Institute of the Arts and Sciences, by phone from her home. “Galleries were closing. Music halls were closing, and there was a sense we somehow were going to be denied art.” 

Inspiration struck as she walked through the nearly deserted campus thinking about how so many would miss the beauty of the hilltop site and realized there was already a way to virtually roam the campus while also considering its stories, histories, and secrets. A 2015 project by artists Harrell Fletcher, Molly Sherman, and Nolan Calisch titled, Collective Museum, had collected stories and photographs of some 50 sites on the Santa Cruz campus. Nelson made it the first exhibit on the Art Without Distance site.  

Viewers of the Collective Museum can hear a story by Professor Emeritus of MCD Biology Harry Noller about how, in the mid 1980s, then-Chancellor Robert Sinsheimer first broached the idea of sequencing the human genome to three professors on campus and also view the room where it happened. They can see a photo and read about why Oakes lower lawn is so important to alumnus Danny Rodriguez, a first-generation college student from Los Angeles who not only saw his first shooting star from the expanse of green but later walked across the same field on graduation day. Or they can finally answer the question of why there is a merry-go-round outside Thimann Labs.  

In its second week, a video tour and stories about Solitary Garden, a participatory public sculpture and garden project by New Orleans artist jackie sumell that examines solitary confinement, justice, and the prison-industrial complex, were posted on the site. 

Both of the virtual exhibits will be used in classroom curricula, including literature, art, and humanities courses, according to Nelson. 

Art Without Distance will also include visual essays; blogs; social media posts on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter; and a virtual presentation of Carlos Motta’s We the Enemy exhibit, which tracks the persecution of LGBTQIA+ individuals from colonialism to HIV/AIDS research. The virtual version of the exhibit, done in collaboration with SFMOMA, will include videos and an interview of Motta by Nelson.  

For Nelson, Art Without Distance is a place to share experiences, feelings, and ideas, and also a way to cultivate imagination, innovation, and creativity. 

“We have to believe imagination is important in these times and that we can have rich lives that are happy and creative and innovative and are not in response to this pandemic; that we can hold onto something else,” Nelson said. “The answer lies in our ability to imagine something other than this.”