UMGC Arts Program Shifts Gears During the Pandemic

In a darkened room, a white-haired man in a sleeveless, striped sweater sits on a wooden swivel chair before a door. The title of Sharon Wolpoff’s 1988 oil painting, “Waiting for the Electrician,” explains the scene. Yet the work is much more. It is a symphony of abstract forms where, in this instance, the shadow cast by the chair alternatively evokes fossilized dinosaur bones, a stringed instrument such as a harp, and a gridded Piet Mondrian painting.

With a year of social distancing, pandemic, and relative isolation behind us, the work of Wolpoff—a Washington, D.C.-born artist—feels like it is channeling the quarantine. A unseen electrician is evidently en route, but anything, say even a global pandemic grinding the world to a near standstill, could happen. Perhaps the man in the sweater awaits Godot, to evoke Samuel Beckett’s famous play about pining in vain for an arrival.

The painting is a gift by the artist to the University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) Maryland Artist Collection. It is also one of 10 artworks that UMGC has printed and mailed to supporters of its Arts Program as part of the Stay Connected initiative during the COVID-19 shutdown. According to printed materials, the Arts Program “will renew its exhibition program upon the reopening of site operations” and all previously slated exhibitions, including a survey of Wolpoff’s art, will be mounted when it is safe to do so.

In the Stay Connected mailings, each printed work from the UMGC collection is sized for framing, said Eric Key, director of the Arts Program, and accompanied by information about the artist and the art. In the case of Wolpoff’s painting, “it is at the moment when the light appears that artistic creativity strikes. She sees more than just a well-lit space; she sees how the space is transformed.”

Wolpoff also explores the ways light affects color. “For example, what at first appears to be a navy blue might become a lighter blue or sky blue with a ray of light on the surface,” according to the notes about the painting. “This play of light on color inspires her to discover how different shades of one color can change the tenor of a work. It is this union of color and shapes, this fusion, that she demonstrates in her work.”

Nine other printed works from UMGC’s collection scheduled to be mailed over the next few months are: a circa 206 B.C.E. to 220 C.E. cauldron—perhaps part of funerary set—by an unknown Chinese artist; Selma Oppenheimer’s 1960 painting “Girl in Yellow Hat;” an untitled Alma Thomas 1969 watercolor painting; Paul Reed’s 1971 acrylic painting on paper, “Gilport One,” from a series called Gilport; a silver gelatin print of William Anderson’s 1978 photo “Woman with Pipe;” McArthur Binion’s circa 1978-79 crayon-on-aluminum work “152 W. 25th Street;” Nelson Stevens’ 1983 mixed media work “Stevie Wonder;” Andy Warhol’s 1983 screen print “African Elephant” from his Endangered Species series; and Curlee Raven Holton’s 2017 oil painting titled “Dream Bait.”

The notes accompanying the images are rich with detail. Among other things, recipients are informed that Warhol was born Andrew Warhola and that a movement called AfriCOBRA stands for “the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists.” Photographer Anderson, who was born in Selma, Alabama, in 1932, said of his artistic approach, “I believe there is beauty in all life … I look for people whose faces tell a story.” Anderson died in 2019.

Biographical information offered through the Stay Connected initiative points out that Thomas’ career was marked by several historic firsts. She had her first solo exhibition at age 68 and was the first African American woman with a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art. She was also the first African American woman whose work was acquired by the permanent collection of the White House Historical Association and displayed at the White House.

When Key closed UMGC’s art galleries on March 15, 2020, he thought it would be a short-term measure. As it became clear that the pandemic would necessitate longer closures, he had to take measures to reschedule exhibitions.

“We were curating our own shows, so it was easier for us to communicate with artists and owners and let them know what was going on,” he said. “As much as we would have liked to stay on schedule, of course they all understood.

”We were very clear that we were not canceling. We were postponing,” he said.

After polling community members, Key decided that printed materials, rather than virtual artist talks, were the best way to stay connected for now.

“Our arts patrons were really getting burned out with those meetings, and they didn’t really feel a connection to the artwork. We decided not to do Zoom meetings,” he explained. “We decided to do print media instead.”

Stay Connected is the reminder to the UMGC community that the Arts Program is not closed for good. In showcasing many past exhibitions, artists’ talks and works from the UMGC collection, it also shows the breadth of the 35-year-old program.

“We also wanted the public to stay tuned—kind of like a teaser—to see the works up front and close when the program reopens,” Key explained.

The Arts Program had just completed the 4th Biennial Maryland Regional Juried Art Exhibition on March 1, 2020, when COVID-19 restrictions began. The facilities department and the security team ensured the safety of the juried artworks, displayed in the program’s rotating gallery, until they could be returned to the artists. Key said he was able to go in for a day or two to take the works down. Artists came to the building’s loading dock and retrieved their pieces,

“If the building is on lockdown, it’s on lockdown. You can’t get in nor out,” Key said.

The permanent collection remains hanging on the gallery walls. Conservators are not present in person but the collection has been safeguarded by 24-hour security during the pandemic.

Exhibitions are not the only thing disrupted by COVID-19. The pandemic also affected plans for a return art trip to Cuba for the Cuban Biennale. A 2019 trip generated enough interest that the 2020 trip was on track to sell out before the pandemic hit.

Key said he looks forward to when he can resume planning arts education trips.

With the pandemic, Key and the Arts Program directors had to pivot their focus. They have been hard at work on the longer-term project of digitizing the university’s nearly 3,000 works of art. That has meant planning photo shoots of some works and finding existing professional shots of others then uploading images into collection software while ensuring that the text describing each work is accurate.

With help from IT technicians, Key and his colleagues have been learning new computer software programs. When the building reopens, they will confirm the sizes, media, and key characteristics they must know in order to virtually present the works—and their artists—to the general public.

Until then, Key recommended that people who are exploring art online pay attention to the virtual events produced by the Smithsonian Institution, local Maryland galleries, and David C. Driskell Center for the Study of the Visual Arts and Culture of African Americans and the African Diaspora at University of Maryland. He said Driscoll’s legacy, in particular, stands out for him.

He also encouraged art lovers to hang onto emails about exhibitions. “Keep them as a reference. Then go to the institutions to see the actual works when those organizations reopen,” he said. “Seeing the emails will only pique your interest in seeing the work in person.”   

Key said virtual exhibitions where viewers click on arrows that help them “walk” through galleries have not provided him with the closeness to art he seeks. He tried a virtual walk-through with Hauser & Wirth gallery’s Amy Sherald exhibit. Sherald famously painted former first lady Michelle Obama for the National Portrait Gallery.

“I was more interested to get to the pieces so I could see them, but even looking at a piece, I felt a distance from it. I didn’t feel a closeness to it,” Key said. “As much as I respect the intent of the gallery to show the work, I couldn’t see the brushstrokes. I couldn’t see the details that I would look at in person.”

It is impossible for Key to predict when the UMGC galleries will reopen. Once the university deems it safe to do so, the Arts Program will begin planning its postponed exhibition as well as future shows and programs.

“Personally, and as the director of the program, I was obviously very disappointed that people didn’t have access to the art,” Key said. People who frequent art galleries, including members of the UMGC arts community, have told Key they missed that access.

Even people who are not regular gallery visitors said they missed having contact with art.

“On a larger scale, we take art for granted, but it really does serve a higher meaning and a higher calling in the community,” Key said. “We’ve always known that art had its place. This just validates that it does.”

New UMGC Curator’s Path Took Him from Nursing to Museums

When he started studying nursing at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro, Treston Sanders figured he would be joining an occupation that was the family business for a great many of his relatives. Every woman on his mother’s side—including his maternal great-great-grandmother—was or had been a nurse. “It made sense,” he said.

Until it did not.Continue Reading

The Kalb Report: One for the History Books, A Conversation with Ken Burns on a Turbulent 2020

Award-winning Documentary Filmmaker Joins Journalist Marvin Kalb to Offer Context and Perspective on the Pandemic, Protests and Politics in America at National Press Club Livestream Event, July 27

Adelphi, Md. (July 16, 2020)—Ken Burns, the Emmy-Award winning documentarian, is known for illuminating American life through renowned films including “Country Music,” “The Civil War,” “Jazz,” “The Statue of Liberty,” “The Vietnam War,” and “Baseball.” By chronicling seminal moments in our country’s past, he has provided context and perspective on many of the unprecedented cultural, political and racial challenges we face today. Burns has also created a web page – UNUM – to explore the intersection of current events and history.Continue Reading

UMGC Exhibit Features Joseph Sheppard Works on African American Experience

Galleries and Exhibitions Temporarily Closed

To protect the health of the University of Maryland Global Campus community and visitors, the Arts Program galleries and exhibitions are temporarily closed to support the university’s efforts to contain the spread of coronavirus disease. Updates will be posted on the UMGC Arts Program webpage as they become available.

The University of Maryland Global Campus Arts Program celebrates the extraordinary work of renowned artist Joseph Sheppard and his efforts to capture scenes of everyday life and culture with its latest exhibition, “Joseph Sheppard: An African American Experience.”

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Cuba and Art: The Shaman and the Boxer

Last April, the University of Maryland Global Campus Arts Program organized a trip to Havana, Cuba, for that country’s 13th art biennial—the XIII Bienal de La Habana. This, the second of three stories that reflect on that experience, is a companion piece to the in-depth feature article and photo spread, “Art. Freedom. Cuba,” in the just-published Winter 2020 issue of Achiever Magazine.

The Chinese-made tour bus cruised along Cuba’s A-1 motorway, the Autopista Nacional, a toll-free multi-lane divided national highway. The road, built in sections during the 1980s, is supposed to traverse the distance between Havana and Guantanamo, about 570 miles to the southeast.

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UMGC Exhibit Culled from ‘Extremely Strong’ Entries Shows More Art than Expected

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Cuba and Art: Giraffes and Ladders and Books, Oh My!

As 2019 draws to a close, the Global Media Center takes a look back at an extraordinary trip to Havana, Cuba, organized by the UMGC Arts Program. The 17 art lovers who traveled there in April for the county’s 13th art biennial—the XIII Bienal de La Habana—soon learned Cuban art offers a good bit of the unexpected. This is the first of three stories that reflect on that experience and preview the in-depth feature article and photo spread, “Art. Freedom. Cuba.” in the upcoming Winter 2020 issue of Achiever Magazine.

It appears that little in Cuba is “as usual.” Take, for instance, the name of the well-known arts festival that the island nation hosts—the Havana art biennial. It’s a misnomer.Continue Reading

‘Family Album’ Is Subject of UMGC Joint Exhibition at US District Courthouse

The enormous, four-story lobby of the U.S. District Courthouse in Greenbelt, Maryland, isn’t the kind of place where one would expect to find art exhibitions. Walking by rooms identified on plaques as bankruptcy courts, one is even more surprised to see bright, colorful paintings. But that’s kind-of the point, said Peter J. Messitte, a senior U.S. district judge.Continue Reading

In His Art, Steven Dobbin Recycles Found Objects to Tease Out Heavy Meaning

EDITOR’S NOTE:  We officially changed our name from University of Maryland University College (UMUC) to University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) on July 1, 2019. News stories posted on the Global Media Center are now using the new UMGC name. However, because the transition to the university’s new name will take several months to complete, you may still see the UMUC name, logo and look on our website and other materials through early 2020.

For an artist’s talk that had an academic, ho-hum title like “Conceptualism to Meaning,” Steven Dobbin drew a lot of laughs.Continue Reading