Howard Universitys virtual 50th Faculty Exhibitions virtual 50th Faculty Exhibition Credit: Courtesy of Miriam Ahmed

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On May 9, Howard University’s 50th annual art faculty exhibition opened—but unlike in past years, this installation was unveiled online. It runs to the end of July.

The curator of 50th Faculty Exhibition, Miriam Ahmed, a lecturer in graphic design at the university, explains that user experience was their primary consideration in creating the 3D virtual display with Kunstmatrix’s augmented reality tools.

The virtual format is creating more opportunities to engage with audiences: Faculty publications are highlighted in the virtual exhibition, which is not typically done in a physical gallery space. The department is hosting artists’ talks online every Wednesday at 11 a.m., from May 20 to July 22. During each talk, they’ll release a hint for a scavenger hunt, and announce a winner at the end of July. The first clue is bison, Howard University’s mascot. Attendees are challenged to click through the exhibition, look at each artwork, and count the bison. Details like arrows on the floor guide viewers through the space. 

Alongside the faculty exhibition is the Annual Art Graduates Exhibition. The virtual installation of graduating students’ artwork was curated by Alexander T. McSwain, an assistant professor in the art department and coordinator of Howard’s electronic studio, which covers user interface design, augmented and virtual reality, 2D and 3D animation, special effects, product design, and motion graphics.

These exhibitions are making art and arts education more accessible.

“Our department has always had social impact in our mission, ever since we started in 1921,” Ahmed says. “And that was long before social impact were buzzwords.”

She relates the innovation of the digital displays to the art department’s long history of being on the cutting edge of African American art, with professors who were major players in the black arts movement, like Akili Ron Anderson and James Phillips.

McSwain and Ahmed spoke with City Paper about these projects came together and the lasting influence they think the virtual realm might have on the greater art community. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Washington City Paper: How did you decide to make these exhibitions digital?

Alexander T. McSwain: Going digital was almost an instant thought … so it was really more so about us figuring out how.

WCP: How long did it take to design and complete both exhibitions?

Miriam Ahmed: We called for exhibitions about two weeks before, so [that] gave faculty and students about two weeks to submit their work. And then we did about a 24-hour sprint when we were just processing the submissions. And then I think we put up the exhibitions in about three days. We wanted to launch on commencement, so that’s why we made sure to do everything in that timeframe.

WCP: Did the artists take the photographs of their work?

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MA: They did actually—they did a pretty good job photographing their work, I think. It was a challenge, definitely, to try to get people to photograph with proper lighting and proper perspectives from home when they don’t have a studio setup, but everyone did a phenomenal job getting work that was high quality.

WCP: With students at home, how has digital learning been in general?

AM: It’s been a challenge, more so because students having to leave campus so abruptly, going home, they might not have a computer that works. You know, technical issues that come with them being at home, plus dealing with the actual virus itself. So it’s been a challenge, but it’s been more of an overall positive experience for students. They’re still wanting to come to class. Still wanting to learn, even through this crisis.

MA: Our programs [the graphic design and electronic studio program] quite often have guests who come into the classroom digitally via digital conferencing. I think it’s safe to say that, between Alex and I, we had a pretty seamless transition in terms of the delivery of the coursework. But the main challenges were making sure that the students had the facilities that they needed where they went to, and then dealing with the emotional and psychological impact of this whole pandemic.

WCP: How did students push through these difficulties?

MA: I have one particular student, when he went home, he didn’t have access to a computer. He just had his phone and his tablet. And all the libraries close by were shut down, so he didn’t have a space to go to where he could engage in the coursework. We were coding in HTML and CSS, which require a computer to do. So he wasn’t able to get access to that. So what he ended up doing was working on his tablet and hand coding. It’s impressive when someone says that they are able to hand code, but this guy was literally writing handwritten code on his tablet, which he got a lot of credit for in my class. That’s something that I wouldn’t expect.

WCP: How might this exhibition influence the greater art community?

AM: In terms of what the virtual gallery reality means in the wider scope: access and people being able to experience [art]. So, say next year, when all of this is over, does that mean that the virtual gallery goes away? I don’t think [so]. I think [a virtual gallery] will enhance future gallery openings to where we’ll be doing simultaneous openings, so that people who may not travel or can’t travel or someone in a whole different country can still experience our students’ work, and still in a gallery setting, but virtually. 

WCP: What new perspectives come out of this experience?

AM: I guess how important it is to be accessible—or for students to have access. Not necessarily wanting to switch fully online, but having a component. D.C. isn’t the cheapest place to live, so our education being more accessible to more people would only benefit the art world. You know, there’s a lot of artistic talent out there, but the financial or the fiscal responsibility might be preventing them from becoming an artist or really focusing on their art, so this kind of allows us to reach people where they are, versus them having to come to us to get an education. 

I’m hoping that other galleries do follow suit. Because it’d be a shame not to have a new opening during the summer because of COVID-19, versus other galleries being inspired to do a virtual gallery themselves.

MA: Traditionally, the arts don’t get as much attention. They’re not seen as valuable as the other fields, but hopefully through this exhibition we’ll show not just the art program, but Howard, we’re right there; we’re cutting edge. We’re critical to society and the community.