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Pandemic leads Farmington Museum to show more of its permanent collection

Display of interactive material has become off limits

Mike Easterling   | Farmington Daily Times

FARMINGTON — While it remains open to the possibility of booking higher-profile traveling exhibitions, the Farmington Museum at Gateway Park will rely heavily on its permanent collection and work by regional artists to fill out its exhibitions schedule for the near future.

Museum director Bart Wilsey said that when the museum's current exhibitions close over the next month they will be replaced by shows that feature the work of artists from throughout the Four Corners and pieces that have appeared in the museum's annual "Gateway to Imagination" competition.

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Wilsey said that approach is necessitated by the COVID-19 restrictions the museum is operating under while Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's public health orders remain in place. He said interactive components are a major part of many traveling exhibitions these days, and New Mexico museums are not permitted to display those kinds of attractions.

"So that narrows the possibilities quite a bit," Wilsey said.

The traveling exhibitions that have been occupying the museum's galleries for the past several months are close to ending their respective runs. The "Inside Out" exhibition, a retrospective of 150 years of women's fashion from the San Angelo (Texas) Museum of Art, will come to an end on Jan. 12, while "Gridiron Glory," a collection of memorabilia from the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, is due to close on Feb. 8.

That doesn't mean the museum won't be able to offer some attractive programming, even as the pandemic continues, Wilsey said. It's just that the facility will focus more on traditional art shows rather than exhibitions that emphasize hands-on, educational elements.

A new exhibition showcasing the work of plein air artists from throughout the Four Corners will open on Jan. 16 and will feature approximately 40 paintings by artists from New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Colorado. And a large retrospective of work culled from the museum's permanent collection will open later in the year.

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Wilsey said many of the pieces in the latter show, "Art in Focus," are works that the museum purchased from national or regional artists who have participated in the "Gateway to Imagination" juried exhibitions or the annual Totah Festival. But it also will include other works the museum has purchased or had donated over the years, including pieces by such well-known and highly regarded artists as Frederic Remington and Fritz Scholder.

Wilsey said "Focus on Art" is still in the planning stages, and its opening date remains undetermined. But he said it likely would be this spring.

Later this year, the museum plans to open another exhibition of material culled from its permanent collection. "Hats off to Fashion" will feature approximately 265 women's hats or accessories that were donated to the museum many years ago by the daughter of Farmington artist and arts patron Lola Furman.

Wilsey said the items included in the show have not been displayed at the museum for more than two decades.

"It's just an amazing collection," he said. "It goes all the way from the 1920s to the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. That's the core of what she collected."

New exposure for old treasures

The Farmington Museum has an extensive and widely varied permanent collection, and many of those items have been warehoused for years without being displayed for public viewing. Wilsey acknowledged that while the pandemic has placed some limitations on the kind of exhibitions the museum can feature, it also has provided the institution with a chance to call the public's attention to the quality of its permanent collection.

"I think it's made us a little more introspective in looking at that issue," he said. "Yeah, we do need to utilize our collection more in the exhibits, and this has shined a light on that. And I think you need a good mix of both."

Wilsey said that for several years, the emphasis in museums throughout America has been to develop exhibitions that feature a strong interactive element. But when the pandemic came along, those displays suddenly were placed off limits, sharply reducing or eliminating the market for them in many parts of the country.

And it has become difficult to find any traveling shows that are immune to those issues, Wilsey said.

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"It's been a challenge to find traveling exhibits," he said. "They are out there, but they are few and far between, and it narrows what you can display considerably. Even if you look at other museums in the state, we're fortunate to be open, whereas others that deal strictly in interactives cannot."

That list of shuttered facilities includes all the state museums in Santa Fe, Wilsey noted, as well as the Explora science center in Albuquerque.

Farmington Museum officials had not signed any contracts for future traveling shows that were jeopardized by the onset of the pandemic, he said, and the facility was fortunate to be able to extend the run of the "Gridiron Glory" and "Inside Out" exhibitions past their original closing dates.

But he said his museum has not been immune to other problems that have plagued the industry since the pandemic began. He cited a recent survey by the American Alliance of Museums indicating that museum attendance across the country is down 75% since the virus appeared in America.

"This is not one particular case, this is national," he said. "People are just not traveling, and a lot of museums are hooked into tourism. Our numbers are in line with the national average, I guess I would say."

Wilsey said he is continuing to look for traveling exhibitions to bring to the Farmington Museum, so long as they are safe, and he emphasized that his facility is operating in a responsible manner.

"We are still here, we are still open and we have plenty of social distancing," he said.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or Support local journalism with a digital subscription.