As the coronavirus pandemic spread rapidly and Duval County went into lockdown mode, MOCA Jax Director Caitlín Doherty and her team wanted to ensure that MOCA’s renowned collection remained accessible to a public that would soon be increasingly confined, anxious, and in need of reverie and inspiration. The virtual museum platform, MOCA smART Online, was launched in early April, offering a wide range of digital museum experiences, including artist interviews, live-stream programs, video art classes and workshops, art activities for children, and MOCA Movie Nights through Netflix Party–all for free.

We caught up with Doherty to ask how one of the most influential people in the arts, locally, is remaining inspired and motivated to carry out her museum’s mission.

How you holding up? What’s quarantine life like for the director of a contemporary arts institution?

Like everyone else, the transition during this time has been a major shift both at work and at home. At MOCA, we moved all of our staff to working remotely and closed the museum building until further notice. The next step was to figure out how to pivot to a museum-at-home experience in order to continue our work as a public cultural resource. I am proud of my team for launching MOCA smART Online within ten days of closing, and through daily fresh content it has been a really important way for us to stay connected with our community. I have also spent a lot of time connecting with colleagues and peers locally, nationally and internationally, making sure that MOCA is best informed and best placed to make the kind of decisions that are necessary during this crisis. As a working mother, I know how hard it is to juggle remote work with homeschooling (in my case a high schooler and a middle schooler), while staying in touch with family and friends we are now disconnected from physically. Yet, I also understand how lucky I am. I am so very grateful to all of our healthcare workers as well as those people who are working every day to help keep our community functioning while practicing social distancing to keep our homes healthy. All we can do is take it day by day.

How have you been staying positive during the shutdown? I remember that you were once a bartender in Ireland. Has Guinness on draft played a role in your coping with this whole thing? 

I am certainly enjoying having more time with my family, going for walks, watching movies together, or just spending time having breakfast together rather than grabbing a cup of coffee while running out the door in the morning. My husband is a singer-songwriter, and both of our children are very musical, and so the house is always filled with music and song, and that has been a lovely distraction too. And while Guinness has never been to my particular taste, a nice glass of red wine in the evening has been a welcome winddown I have to admit.

MOCA is supporting local performing artists on its smART Online by hosting Q&As on the MOCA Blog to promote their work and is beginning a series of video concerts in the galleries. || Photo: Kristen Penoyer

MOCA seems to have sprung into action fairly quickly, launching a virtual museum experience that provides access to many of the institution’s offerings. Can you tell us about how the virtual museum idea came about and some of the more unique experiences available through the web portal?

Once we decided to close the physical museum, we knew that in order to stay true to our mission we had to launch a virtual platform as quickly as possible. Our mission is to promote the discovery, knowledge and advancement of the art, artists and ideas of our time. Today, artists and arts organizations need support more than ever and the public needs the arts to uplift the spirit. [MOCA smART Online] was led by our Director of Communications and Marketing, Nan Kavanaugh, who worked with Marian Watters from IT Services at the University of North Florida to build the platform. They created the framework, then the rest of the staff at MOCA hit the ground running with content that is updated daily. We have something for everyone. And best of all, it’s free. 

You’ve worked for arts institutions around the globe. Any sense for how Northeast Florida’s arts community is faring during the pandemic relative to communities in other cities? That is: what are we doing well? What will be important for us to take on going forward to ensure our arts scene thrives in an environment that’s bound to look quite different?

Part of what makes this crisis so unprecedented, is that it affects every aspect of the cultural sector globally. I have discussed the realities of it with colleagues in many different countries, and despite the uniqueness of their individual contexts, the challenges are the same for all. Immediate loss of income is of course a major problem this fiscal year, and like all non-profits, at MOCA we have had to put together new strategies and are working hard to stabilize the organization in the immediate term. But next fiscal year is equally worrying; an entirely new philanthropic landscape will necessarily emerge, and what that looks like has yet to be defined. For organizations that are dependent on philanthropy to balance budgets, that is a worrying reality.

Project Atrium Kedgar Volta was the last Project Atrium exhibition seen by the general public. The new Project Atrium: Rina Banerjee was set to open in March, but the health crisis has pushed it back.

What’s something you’ve seen that gives you hope for the future of MOCA, or arts in Northeast Florida in general? 

I have been struck by how much people are reliant on the arts right now, and how quickly people have turned to the arts to help them through this difficult time. Let’s be honest, if you asked most people, they would say Jacksonville is a sports town. But the reality is that we have had thousands of people engage with our digital offerings every week since closing. The regional media has been doing an excellent job helping promote arts organizations’ virtual experiences and arts and cultural organizations are working collaboratively to support and guide each other through this crisis. The cultural sector in Jacksonville employees over 2,000 citizens and has an economic impact of $85 million annually. Already, there is a loss of over $1 million in revenue across arts organizations citywide. We have a long road ahead of us, and I am proud of the small part that MOCA has played in serving our community in this difficult time.

This feature originally appeared in Void Magazine’s May 2020 issue, The Check In. For more Check In’s and a local artist Group Show, click the mag below.

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