Denver metro area arts go online

Some Denver area institutions say digital approach could become lasting element

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Town Hall Arts Center in Littleton was just about to start its spring kids’ classes when the arrival of COVID-19 changed everything.

“Once that all came apart, I, like everybody else, sort of sat back and said: ‘What do we do?’” said Robert Michael Sanders, the education manager at the arts center.

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But as the situation came into clearer focus, Sanders realized the center had an opportunity to do something good to help preserve a sense of normalcy for kids and the parents who are struggling to keep them entertained and engaged.

“What we did is we sort of created a pile of classes and decided we could put them together online and just put it out there for people,’” Sanders said. “And we decided that the best thing we could do for the kids stuck at home is just offer something (free of charge) and not add a financial hit to the parents who may or may not be working.”

Sanders said the arts center is offering 10 classes that take place on weekdays between 3:30 and 5:30 p.m. to mimic a traditional after-school program. About 90 kids are currently enrolled.

“The response has actually been pretty overwhelming,” Sanders said.

It’s a new way of teaching for Sanders and his team and a new way of learning for the students, but one that has become increasingly commonplace in recent weeks as museums, libraries and other cultural institutions and organizations have responded to the closure of their physical facilities by pivoting to offering content and experiences virtually.

‘Meet the Chickens’ and more

On the website of the Golden History Museum and Park, the virtual offerings, which are updated weekly, have ranged from lectures about history and museum artifacts to a “meet the chickens” program offering a behind-the-scenes look at the park’s chickens. Then there is a new recurring feature in which Nathan Richie, the museum’s director, demonstrates how to make a historical recipe in his kitchen with the help of his two kids.

Now, the museum is seeing value in what began as an experiment to try to adapt and stay connected to the museum’s audience during the closure.

“It’s actually been a little freeing for us because we are trying to just rapidly come up with stuff instead of taking weeks or months to plan something,” Richie said. “So far the stuff we have been doing has kind of had a grittier feel than some of the more produced stuff we are used to doing,”

It’s an approach that seems to be finding an audience, as Richie said the museum has seen “an eight- or nine-fold increase” in its web and social media traffic. The director said he has also been excited to see people tune into the programs not just from Golden but around the world.

“The museum has a number of members that lived in Golden and moved away but still want to stay connected, or maybe their family members were pioneers in Golden but they’ve never been here, and now they are able to participate in the museum in ways that they’ve never been able to before,” said Richie.

Richie said the museum is making plans to continue with some online programming — although likely at a reduced frequency — even after the museum reopens.

Museums as large as the Denver Museum of Nature & Science are also experimenting with homemade content and offerings—and seeing success doing so.

Tina Martinez, the director of programs and partnerships at the DMNS, said the museum is now seeing “thousands of people” tune into the programs it is posting on the DMNS@Home section of its website.

Martinez said she received plenty of feedback by people who have been amazed by the ability of museum staff to offer “museum-quality” programming online.

“We did one program where we used some of our planetarium technology and we were able to put that online and take people through all through the universe just as we would in the planetarium, but we were doing that through a Zoom platform,” said Martinez.

Few Denver-area institutions can match the programming capacity of the Jefferson County Public Library system, which puts on “thousands of programs” each year, according to Assistant Director of Community Engagement Deirdre Keating. But with the system’s 10 library branches closed until further notice, Keating said the system is now focusing on “trying to meet people where they are at, and right now that’s in their homes online.”

One way the library system is doing that is with a Wednesday Night Watch Party of movies through Facebook Live.

Then on April 13, the library began posting a variety of virtual story time videos online (one aimed at babies and toddlers has received several hundred views) and it’s also posting a variety of other offerings aimed at kids and adults to the virtual programs section of its website.

“Its’s very much been about figuring out how to do things in an entirely different format,” said Keating. “And it’s amazing to me because these are librarians in their home, with my staff holding their hands and showing them how to videotape themselves and get some good audio, and then our graphic design team editing those videos and fixing the sound and getting them ready.”

 

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