For First Time, Davenport’s Figge Museum Puts Major Art Exhibit Online in Dazzling Tour
You have just 20 days left to see the blockbuster traveling exhibit, “For America: 200 Years of Painting from the National Academy of Design” at Davenport’s Figge Art Museum.
But if you’re still not comfortable making the in-person visit, or you’re looking for more insight, information and invaluable activities beyond the exhibit itself, the Figge has another blockbuster for you online.
With the Boston-based architectural design firm IKD, the museum built a “microsite” for “For America,” which is not only a virtual tour (where you can navigate through the art as if you’re there in the galleries), it’s an artistic tour de force.
“We began talking about it in in the fall,” Figge executive director Michelle Hargrave said last Thursday. “We realized that, when ‘For America’ opened, that a lot of our members were not going to be ready to come back out in person yet. And then also some of our members were going to be down in Florida. So we wanted to have a way to for all of our community to engage with this exhibition that we’ve been planning for many years.”
The museum contracted with IKD, which works with museums nationwide and has offices in Boston and San Francisco. The Figge wanted to create its own comprehensive site, not simply a virtual tour of the exhibit – which it has done on a limited basis online in other ways since the start of the Covid pandemic in spring 2020.
“We wanted to include things like programs and a guided tour package, and have family activities as well as interactive art activities,” Hargrave said.
The online tour offers a vast array of resources, including a 10-minute video of the exhibit (narrated by assistant curator Vanessa Sage); gallery views of the Figge exhibit (which is on the first, second and third floors) – where you can control the navigation of what to see — as well as a slide show of all 99 individual artworks, where you can see detailed information on each artist and painting.
The site also includes an audio introduction to “For America” from Hargrave, docent videos, regional artists audio, gallery event videos, educational information, and art activities such as video demonstrations of portrait and landscape painting from Rhiannon Ashmore of the Figge education department.
Presenting nearly 100 artworks spanning over 200 years from 1809 to 2013, “For America” features masterpieces by revered American
artists such as William Merritt Chase, John Singer Sargent, Cecilia Beaux, Charles White, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, and many others.
The exhibition presents a unique history of American art as seen through the lens of artists. Exploring how these individuals have represented themselves and their country over time, the exhibition is a striking portrait of broadening diversity throughout the country’s history, according to the Figge.
“It was a really a cross-departmental team that worked on the site — from curatorial to marketing and development, as well as me and education,” Hargrave said of the IKD site. “We put together a wish list, things that we wanted to include and because of time and budget, we had to cut back on a few things, but we kept what was really essential and the things that we felt like would best serve the community.”
Work on the site primarily was done from last November until its public unveiling in late February; the actual exhibit opened Feb. 20, 2021. The Figge has continued to update the site, with additional content like docent videos on individual paintings; the virtual talks and
presentations offered on Thursday nights, and uploaded community art.
The museum has featured art by local residents in its large elevator, which is reflected as a feature of the online site. A short video in that community art section includes remarks by area artists Lindsay O’Brien, Peter Xiao and Heidi Hernandez, as well as Visit Quad Cities president/CEO Dave Herrell.
Several regional artists also discuss pieces in “For America”: Judy Bales, Dawn Wolhford, Zaiga Thorson, Rob Lipnick and Laurel Farrin.
“We felt like it was important to include them because this is really an exhibition that’s featuring works that are by artists for artists,” Hargrave said. “These artists submitted works for the National Academy, which is an organization that’s run by artists and to become a member, you need to be nominated by your peers for membership. And the exhibition focuses on how the artist wanted to pick themselves or their colleagues and how they want to present their work.
“So we felt like it was important to engage our local artists in that conversation and for them to respond to what they were seeing,” she said.
Founded in 1825 by the artist Samuel F. B. Morse and a group of forward-thinking individuals, the National Academy of Design has a simple yet powerful mission: to provide means for the training of artists and the promotion and exhibition of their art.
Since its founding, the Academy has upheld a rule from its first constitution: any elected National Academician must donate one of their artworks to the Academy’s collection. In 1839, the Academy decided that anyone nominated to the preceding rank of Associate National Academician must also present a portrait of themselves for the collection, whether painted by their own hand or that of a fellow artist.
Over the decades, these submissions have grown into a distinctive collection of American art that today includes nearly every major American artist.
Change in layout of “For America”
While the microsite virtual tour is presented as if the “For America” exhibit is on the museum third and fourth floors, the five sections are actually spread out over the first three floors, Hargrave said.
“We had originally planned to put the second two sections on the fourth floor, but for various reasons, including we wanted to have more spacing and we felt that the flow was better — we decided to move them to the second and first floors,” she said. “So the content is the same for what you see on the microsite, but the location is different for those two sections.
“The flow was a little bit better by doing it that way. It also allowed for more social distancing,” Hargrave said. “When we were putting this together, you know, there was less optimism in the community about Covid-19; people were still very cautious. And this allowed our visitors to spread out a little bit more. And as I said, the flow going through the 3rd to the 2nd to the 1st floors seemed to work better.”
The microsite is organized into several sections:
Gallery Views – You can maneuver through the exhibit with the click of a mouse, and click on any painting for detailed information about the work and artist.
Object Slideshow – Scroll through the wall cards that have a small version of each painting, with the descriptions.
Guided Tour – View the narrated guided tour of the exhibit by Vanessa Sage.
Figge Media – See and hear an exhibit introduction, docent videos on individual works, regional artists’ audio on select paintings, videos of free gallery events, art activities, time lapse video of art installations, and the guided tour.
Figge Fun – Learn about art elements and principles, closer looks at certain paintings, seek and find specific things, fun facts, make a collage, and learn to make your own portraits and landscapes.
Community Art – See the rotating community art gallery in the elevator and uploaded your own art to the site.
Donor Wall – See the list of exhibit sponsors, and donors to the Figge Major Exhibitions Endowment Fund, which made “For America” possible.
Museum Store – Take a 3D tour of the Figge store and shop in the online store.
Calendar – See a calendar of upcoming museum events.
For the site, the Figge “wanted the whole nine yards,” Hargrave said, with sections that IKD didn’t do for other museums.
“Closer looking, I believe was exclusive to ours. Certainly, the way we presented the community art gallery was exclusive to us,” she said. It was also essential for the museum to present interactive and educational activities, which is part of the Figge mission, to connect people and art, Hargrave said.
“I think it’s a way for us to engage people and for them to learn about the artwork from a different perspective,” she said. “You’re encouraging them to look more closely at the facts and to understand how the artists approached it as well. So you’re not only getting a sense of the content, but a more formal appreciation of the work.”
IKD sees online business grow
IKD has produced similar websites for the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; New Britain Museum of American Art in Connecticut; Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Tex., and the Boston Lyric Opera.
Yugon Kim, an IKD partner, said Monday of his work on the Figge site: “This one was a culmination of a lot of the other ones we did before, and has a lot of interactives, different experiences within the tour.”
“This is somewhat new territory, that everyone took interest in during Covid,” he said. “Our tours are different than some other museums, where others do just a 360-degree photograph of the actual space, where we digitally model everything and are able to embed additional layers of content.”
“The benefit of this 3D modeling is, we can make slight adjustments to the physical space,” Kim said. “We can work on the tour even prior to the installation of the actual exhibition, so we can really create a simultaneous launch.”
The Figge also asked that the sample patrons depicted in the virtual galleries all wear face masks.
“It would reinforce the need to wear masks indoors,” Kim said, noting that was a first among museum virtual tours. The demand for these sites has really increased during Covid, he said.
“It was a bit of a Covid pivot for us, from a business standpoint,” Kim said. “Museums across the United States had to shut down, and the bulk of our work is with museum clients and cultural institutions, so we developed this new focus or continued focus on the digital realm. It not only helped support the business during the pandemic, but it allowed us to see the value of this new expertise we could add to our scope of services.
“It’s hard to know what it’s going to be post-Covid – if people will still want it as part of the overall exhibition,” he said.
Museums can reach more people with these sites, Kim said.
“This can be another way of engaging an audience. We’ve been quite busy with many interactives for museums,” he said.“If people are nervous about going into museum spaces, having a preview of the space can be a good thing,” said Tomomi Itakura, another IKD partner. “If
they know what to expect – the layout of the space, they can become familiar with it.”
“That was another reason we wanted to digitally model everything, rather than take photographs,” Kim said. “We still would like the physical exhibition to be the culmination. The digital experience is a little bit purposefully, everyone understands it is a digital replication of something in the physical world. It’s building up these levels of reality.
“It was to try and have people who are maybe more into video games, to get them more interested in this experience,” he said. “During the pandemic, galleries were empty, but we were able to add digital model people, so that not only you can see people in the space, but you can imagine yourself in the space.
Having video presentations (and making them available online) during Covid has become common for most cultural institutions, Kim said.
“Every institution, they’re finding creative ways to engage the public,” he said. “That is one positive thing during the pandemic, that museums have to think out of the box and consider new ways of engaging the public. This is a testing ground of what works and what doesn’t. It’ll be interesting to see if they can fold some of things that work into the future.”
Impact on attendance
“For America” is the second traveling blockbuster exhibit for the Figge, following “French Moderns: Monet to Matisse, 1850-1950” – both made possible by the Major Exhibition Endowment Fund, which launched in 2016 and now sits at $1.3 million.
Between October 2018 and January 2019, “French Moderns” attracted 36,112 visitors to the Figge (225 W. 2nd St., Davenport), including people from 47 states and the District of Columbia.
That exhibit from New York City’s Brooklyn Museum included 60 paintings and sculptures by some of the world’s most famous artists,
including Monet, Cezanne, Renoir, Matisse, Degas and Rodin. Thanks to the generosity of sponsors and donors, there was no additional charge to see it on top of regular Figge admission or membership, and that’s the case with “For America.”
Given the Covid pandemic, which has limited visitors and required face masks for all Figge patrons, the museum has averaged 500 visitors per week – which would translate to 4,500 total since “For America” opened. And that is significantly more than the Figge saw in the fall, when it averaged just 130 a week, Hargrave said.
“People are getting vaccinated and are coming out more, and they understand that the Figge is a safe place to be because of the preventive measures we have in place,” she said. “And then the third thing is that people are really excited about seeing the exhibition.”
“Certainly, would I have wanted a different scenario?” Hargrave said of opening a major exhibit during a pandemic (which wasn’t predicted as the Figge planned “For America”). “Of course, but you roll with the punches and we’ve tried to be as adaptive as possible.
“The wonderful thing about having exhibitions now is that, it really was something for people in our community to look forward to as they were coming out of a very challenging year,” she said. “So we were pleased to be able to offer it for that reason and it was also something that the story I think is important for this time.
“We’re coming off a year that’s been very divisive,” Hargrave said. “We’ve had some social justice movements. We’ve had a lot of challenges with our community and of course, people have been overwhelmed themselves.”
Offering an interactive exhibit website does not replace the priceless value of seeing the art in person, the Figge director said. The virtual tour has had about 800 online visits so far, as of last week.
“I know you can’t replace the experience of standing in front of it an actual work of art. While it’s wonderful to have things online, there’s just there’s nothing like seeing the brushstrokes up close,” Hargrave said.
“So what we have found is it’s complementary and people will engage either with it first, or see the exhibit first,” she said. “We had some people who were who are snowbirds, who we chatted with while they were in Florida, but it made them want to come even more to see the exhibition in person.
“And we’ve also had some people that have come in person to see the exhibition, but then she wanted to spend more time with the artwork or get a different perspective and then engaged with the exhibition through the online platform,” Hargrave said.
“There could be some people, who for several months did not feel comfortable coming out at least until they were vaccinated and then used the website during that period,” she said. “Then once they were vaccinated, they were able to come in person to see the exhibit.”
“I think they’re complementary and I think they work in tandem,” Hargrave said. “Certainly, if you’re on the site, you are seeing things that you would not necessarily see while you’re in the exhibition.”
This is the first time the Figge has undertaken such a website for a major exhibit, though they’ve added a lot of online content over the past year.
“This is more comprehensive and allows people to navigate through the space — see the entire exhibition and participate in online activities,” Hargrave said. “This is the first time that we have undertaken something of this magnitude and we may do something like it in the future, but we were very pleased to be able to offer it for ‘For America’.”
Week of free admission for essential workers
Despite its financial challenges, the Figge also was able to give free admission for a week earlier this month to essential workers, made
possible thanks to sponsorship by WVIK—Quad Cities NPR.
“They’d given so much to us that we felt like it was important to give back,” Hargrave said of recognizing local essential workers.
The April 11-17 free admission was given to area healthcare workers, firefighters, law enforcement, educators, grocery store, and food service workers.
“Quite simply, we would not have gotten through the past year without the heroic efforts of our community’s essential workers — from medical personnel to teachers to grocery store workers,” Hargrave said when they announced the deal. “Their efforts are to be commended and we hope this small token of appreciation will bring a bright spot to a trying year.”
Though “For America” will end May 16, the Figge plans to keep the microsite up online after that.
Museum hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday; 10 a.m.-8 p.m. on Thursdays; and 12-5 p.m. on Sundays. Reservations are strongly encouraged and can be made at www.figgeartmuseum.org or by calling 563-345-6632. Admission to the museum is $10 for adults, $6 for seniors and students with ID and $4 children ages 4-12.
Admission is free to Figge members and institutional members and to all on Thursday nights.