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Lessons from the Pandemic: Museum Field Trip Program Thrives – During COVID-19 Pandemic

May 4, 2022

In a typical year, the Art Center of the Bluegrass in Danville, KY welcomes more than 1,000 students for free museum field trips. The last two years have been anything but typical, but thanks to innovative programming and a willingness to embrace new ideas, the Art Center’s field trip program has thrived – and expanded.

Right as the pandemic hit, the Art Center received notification of a grant award from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to expand its field trip program during the 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 school years. Kinkade says this grant award proved to be a catalyst for the organization. “We had to make a decision,” she explains. “Do we decline the grant and just put the field trip program on hold during the pandemic, or do we adapt and figure out how to continue meeting our mission under these new circumstances?”

The Art Center chose to adapt. During the 2020-2021 school year, the organization went fully virtual for field trips, using a combination of live Zoom meetings, shared power-point slides, take-home art kits, and recorded video presentations. “We were all learning as we went along,” says Kinkade. “Teachers were in the same boat, trying to figure out how to move their curriculum online, and there was a really beautiful willingness on the part of our educational partners to try new things.”

In the fall of 2020, most schools were closed, and students were learning from home. The Art Center created take-home art kits to accompany a virtual field trip on plein air artwork and arranged to have the kits distributed along with students’ Chromebooks and other supplies at the start of the school year. Art Center staff led virtual field trips using Zoom and Google Meets, sharing images of artwork from the exhibit with students. They also produced a recorded video of one of the exhibited artists sharing his creative process. After discussing the exhibit, students were encouraged to create their own plein air collage art using the supplies provided. “Our message to students was: you can make art at home, using what you see in front of you for inspiration,” says Kinkade. Student artwork reflected the landscapes of their own backyards and neighborhoods.

In the winter of 2021, the Art Center continued its virtual field trip program for their “Art of Being Black” exhibit, mailing out hundreds of printed exhibit workbooks that allowed students to engage with the themes and images from the show. The virtual field trips were hosted by Yolantha Harrison-Pace, a local artist and performer whose work was included in the show. In addition to the live video meetings, the Art Center also recorded a thirty-minute ‘performance’ of the field trip curriculum to accommodate the demands of asynchronous learning.

The Art Center had planned to return to in-person field trips in the fall of 2021, but with the start of the school year came the delta variant of COVID-19 and schools, while operating in-person, weren’t able to organize field trips to community locations.

The Art Center made the decision to focus their field trip efforts for the year on the winter 2022 exhibit: Appalachia from the Inside, utilizing a hybrid field trip model. Over a six-week period in February and March, over 1,000 students participated in museum field trips, with approximately half attending in-person and half tuning in virtually.

“Flexibility proved to be essential,” explains Leigh Jefferson, Program Director. “Some schools, particularly those within walking distance, were comfortable sending their students for in-person
visits. For other schools, that wasn’t an option, but they were happy to participate virtually.” The focus of the Art Center’s Appalachia field trip curriculum was on the impact of place and family on artists’ work. Jefferson explains that the Art Center wanted students to see how Appalachian artists were inspired by their communities and their lived experiences. “But more than that,” she says, “we hoped students would embrace the idea that they, too, could create artwork that celebrated their own experiences and cultural geography.”

Survey data collected at the end of the field trips suggests that students did just that, with 89% of participating students indicating that the field trip helped them understand how artists’ experiences shape their artwork. Students also shared (88%) that they believed they could create their own artwork about their communities and experiences. Additionally, 94% of participating students indicated that talking about the exhibit with the field trip facilitator increased their appreciation for the artwork.

During the past two academic years 3,386 total students from 20 schools in 8 counties participated in arts field trips through Art Center of the Bluegrass.

“With each exhibit, we changed our process slightly, modifying the curriculum and delivery to meet the changing dynamic of how and where students were learning,” explains Kinkade. She says that the virtual format actually made it easier to meet the organization’s goal of expanding the field trip program. “When word got out that we had virtual field trips available, we started hearing from teachers in surrounding counties. Since they didn’t have to coordinate bus transportation, it suddenly became feasible for a school in Berea or Lexington to have their students participate in a field trip.”

Kinkade says that the organization plans to look at continuing to make a virtual field trip option available for major exhibits in the future. “We have learned that this virtual option can really increase student access to the arts – and that, at the end of the day, is the entire goal of the field trip program.”

Information about field trips and other resources for educators can be found on the Art Center website at www.artcenterky.org/field-trips.