Virtual doors wide open: Cedar Rapids Museum of of Art striving to make an impression online

Preparator Judy Frauenholtz (from left), Executive Director Sean Ulmer and Associate Curator Kate Kunau work together to
Preparator Judy Frauenholtz (from left), Executive Director Sean Ulmer and Associate Curator Kate Kunau work together to hang a painting for the “Across the Atlantic: American Impressionism through the French Lens” exhibition at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art on Jan. 17. The exhibit opened Feb. 1 and was slated to continue through April 26, but the museum closed its doors March 16 because of the coronavirus pandemic. The touring show from the Reding Public Museum in Pennsylvania is the first of three large-scale exhibitions scheduled this year to celebrate the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art’s 125th anniversary. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

After a February upswing that saw a 122 percent rise in people coming into the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art than in February 2019, visitors stopped marching in completely the following month, when the downtown institution closed its doors to the public on March 16.

Right in the middle of this was one of the most highly anticipated exhibitions, “Across the Atlantic: American Impressionism through the French Lens,” one of the landmark exhibitions this year to celebrate the museum’s 125th anniversary. That left March attendance figures down 75 percent from March 2019.

“Those numbers are one indicator of how enthusiastically received this exhibit was by our community,” Seam Ulmer, the museum’s executive director, said.

The touring show from the Reading Public Museum in Pennsylvania opened Feb. 1 and is set to close April 26.

Ulmer is holding onto a glimmer of hope that it may be able to be viewed again for a short time, but nothing is certain at this point. The exhibition, featuring more than 75 pieces, including works by Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt, is supposed to open May 22 at the Ashville, N.C., Art Museum.

“We’re all in a state of limbo here,” Ulmer said.

Typically, the Reading museum would send someone to check on the condition of each piece of art, file a report, oversee the crating by the local museum staff, then send it off-site via fine-art shipping company. The next venue also would need to be ready to receive and install the exhibition. Between all of those moving parts, nothing is certain at this point.

“It all depends on how this pandemic progresses in the United States,” Ulmer said.

... I think everything is going to shift a little bit now. Does that mean we’ll be able to open the exhibition again? Probably not. However, I have expressed to Reading that if there was any possibility that we could open for even another week or two before it has to be crated, we would welcome that.”


The next local exhibition, “125!: 125 Masterworks from the Collection,” is being drawn from the museum’s vast holdings, which offers a measure of flexibility.

“It’s not like we have another traveling show that needs to be installed right away,” Ulmer said.

The companion to that Masterworks show — featuring 10 years of abstract art by Mary Zeran of Cedar Rapids — also is on hold. And the local companion to the Impressionism show, “Ooh La La: French Works from the Riley Collection,” due to close Sunday, will need to come down, then be safely stored at the museum for the time being, Ulmer said.

Cutting short the Impressionism show is “disappointing,” Ulmer said, noting that the museum “is a pretty good place for social distancing, because we’ve got a lot of space, but it was the right thing to do to help prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

”It does affect our bottom line,” he added. “We lose our admissions. We lose sales in the museum store. We’ll probably lose on memberships — people who might buy memberships because they came and wanted to come multiple times. We have yet to see how this will affect our annual fund. We had another annual appeal about to go out.

“There’s a lot of things on people’s minds, and I hope continuing to support the museum and other nonprofits in the community is also on people’s minds at this time. So yes, it definitely impacts our bottom line.”

Explore at home

While the museum’s physical doors are closed at 410 Third Ave. SE, the virtual doors are wide open.

Ulmer and Associate Curator Kate Kunau have been writing blogs and creating videos taking a deeper look at individual pieces in the Impressionism shows. Those are posted on social media platforms, including the museum’s Facebook page,

“We’ve been doing some different kinds of things, now that we’re not open to the public,” Ulmer said, “where we try to bring the work more directly to our audiences.

“We’ve always had an ‘artwork of the week,’ and that’s always been very popular on our various platforms. Before our closure, we already had in the works sending out a weekly eblast that focused on staff picks from the ‘Across the Atlantic’ and ‘Ooh La La’ exhibitions.

“And so we actually had been pulling that together, utilizing everyone from our front desk visitor services people to the store people to people at all levels of the museum, going into the exhibitions and picking out some of their favorite pieces,” he said.

“We sent that eblast on March 18 and got a tremendous response from people. It had nice reproductions of various pieces in the exhibition and people very much responded to it, so that gave us more encouragement to continue down that line.”

The next step came during the first week the museum was closed, and before most of the staff members began working from home. That’s when Ulmer and Kunau stepped in front of the camera to talk about individual pieces in both Impressionism exhibitions.

“These are not super-professional videos, but it’s really just a wonderful way for Kate or myself to talk to about a particular work in one of the exhibitions and bring it into people’s living rooms,” Ulmer said.

“We want people to engage with the artwork and engage with the exhibiting, even though they’re not able to physically come into building any more,” Kunau said.

Ulmer added: “It’s certainly no substitute for seeing the actual work, but it’s a nice way to share the exhibition with a wider public who currently is stuck at home.”

Kid stuff

Online activities are in play, as well, for little learners, students and parents who are trying to fill in the educational gaps while schools are closed.

“It’s a really cool time for that,” Kunau said. “Telemedicine and distance learning and those things that have been on the sidelines have now really come to the fore. I’m sure home-schoolers are laughing at all the rest of us, since they’ve been doing this kind of thing for years.


“You can spend an hour or so on a museum website. On our Facebook page, you can see me talking about a painting and then can zoom in on shots of that painting so you can really appreciate it. There are lots of different crafts that (Education Director Erin Thomas) has been posting that go along with the exhibitions. You can have a discussion about Impressionism and look at all these different examples of Impressionist paintings and listen to me talk about them,” she said. “You can do an art project that goes along with them, so I think it works really well if you wanted to devote a couple hours in the afternoon to focusing on art. We have a lot of good elements there.”

The museum typically has ways of getting art off the walls and into other related realms, from Pajama Storytime where little ones can hear a book being read in one of the galleries, to Family Fun Day activities.

Adults can get in on the act, as well, through such events as an art lover’s book club, guided meditations in Grant Wood’s 5 Turner Alley studio, a recent oil pastels class for adults, and collaborations with other arts organizations, such as a Feb. 23 talk by Kunau and Orchestra Iowa Maestro Timothy Hankewich, looking at the French/American connection of Igor Stravinsky’s “Dumbarton Oaks” concerto.

The museum’s Facebook page currently pairs a beginning ballet lesson and the reading of a book on Degas, most noted for his paintings of ballet dancers. Carol Rezabek of Cedar Rapids, an instructor at The Dancer’s Edge in Hiawatha, and her daughter, Cameron, created the ballet video in their home dance studio, complete with French terminology and music. A separate YouTube link connects to a 2017 reading of “Degas and the Little Dancer.”

Other craft ideas and photos of kids re-enacting famous paintings also are posted on the Facebook page.

Parents and students can search online for learning opportunities from other museums around the world, see their collections, and discover the history lessons that art works hold, as they open windows to the past, from ancient Greece to local history through the Grant Wood curriculum on the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art’s website.

“Parents can utilize art to teach about wonderful moments in history,” Ulmer said.

now & again

“Art is so important, especially in times like right now,” Kunau said. “Things are scary, and things are hard and stressful. Focusing on the beauty in the world right now is really important. I’ve certainly been doing it myself since this has happened. I’ve been going on museums’ Instagrams, doing virtual tours of museums and gardens. It also makes us feel all connected — we’re doing this really hard thing, but we’re doing it together, and we can still take this time to appreciate that there’s beauty in the world and that humans have made all these really things we can all appreciate.

“It’s kind of an interesting time, where we have maybe a little bit more time on our hands. Things are happening more slowly, so you might have had time to sit down and study a painting super in-depth before, now you might have a little time to do that, to go through a virtual tour of a museum.”


But she’s also looking forward to the day when the museum reopens, and hopes people who have seen the museum’s digital offerings will come into the museum in person.

“I’m looking forward to having people in the galleries again,” she said. “When I go in now, I’ll usually walk through the galleries once by myself. It’s a little sad; it’s more fun for me when people are in the galleries.

“I’m going to be really excited when we can open the doors and ... I can walk through and see people enjoying the museum.”

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