GREAT FALLS — If you visit the C.M. Russell Museum Facebook Page or website, you’ll notice something that doesn’t exactly align with the current “temporarily closed” of the country. Despite not being able to admit visitors and art fans into the museum itself during the COVID-19 pandemic, the staff is finding new and creative ways to interact with people via social media.
“Every facet of our museum mission, we tried to find a way to extend virtual outreach,” explained the museum’s director, Tom Figarelle. “Whether that be our curatorial department, our archives and research center, to just interesting facts about Russell, art, and artists that connect with our museum. Every single part of our operations at the museum, we’ve tried to find a way to just project to our community patrons around Montana, and really around the world, even down to our gift shop.”
The gift shop that Tom is referring to can be found on the Museum’s website, with a banner that reads “To support social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic, we are offering FREE LOCAL DELIVERY in Great Falls, Montana, when you shop online.”
The goal here is to cater to the Museum’s patrons in any way possible, specifically by continuing to provide them with ways to enjoy artwork and history, while still abiding by social distancing guidelines.
The Museum’s Facebook page shares a picture of sculpture that was inspired by a story about Charlie Russell. A few days later, Museum Research Manager Kathryn Kramer recommends some books that people can read while they’re stuck inside. Then, a promotion for a “Build your own Charlie Russell log cabin studio” puzzle, with free shipping, of course. Then it’s Education and Programs Manager Eileen Laskowski’s turn. She shares a history lesson video and talks about an experience in Russell’s life that he would later use as an inspiration for a painting. Finally, Development Director Brianne Laurin shares a message of encouragement and a fun fact, all wrapped into a 53-second video.
That was all within the last week. Not bad for a museum that’s “closed” until further notice.
Why is it so important to continue to connect with your supports and art fans across Montana and the world, I ask Tom. He smiles.
“The obvious factor is people can’t get inside the museum, but I think it goes deeper than that,” Figarelle explains. “When people think of the museum, they think about galleries, they think about oil paintings, bronzes, maybe they think about scholarship or interpretation, but there’s one component that’s probably even more important than any; and that’s patrons. It’s the people that breathe the life into a museum, and into our mission. If we can find a way to connect people with all those other facets that comprise our institution, I think we’re building as dynamic an organization as we can within the constraints that we have right now, given the realities of today.”
Like many of the people I’ve spoken with since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, there’s a notion that community support is how we make it through these uncertain times.
For The Russell, postponing their yearly auction could have significant impacts on their ability to continue operations once the stay-at-home orders are lifted. That auction is an important part of what Tom calls their “financial reality.” While it’s postponed until September, an outpouring of support from the community, and people asking how they can continue to support the museum has no doubt lifted the spirits of its hardworking staff.
People have a desire to stay healthy, and therefore, for the most part, understand the stay-at-home orders put in place around the country. But the closed doors don’t equate to closed hearts.
“I think the uniqueness of that is something that people are really excited about, and frankly, I think they’re just excited to see each other,” said Figarelle when asked if he gets the sense that people are excited to come back to the Museum once it reopens. “Every year when we have the Russell Art auction, it’s a bit of a homecoming for folks who maybe don’t see each other face to face all that often, so the chance to do that now this coming September is really exciting for folks, we’ve heard a great reaction.”
Until then, we’ll just have to settle for Facebook history lessons and free local shipping, and I’ll see you at the C.M. Russell Museum when it reopens. Hopefully sooner, rather than later.