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The V is for Virtual: What to Expect from 2020’s Visiting Artists Program

By Featured, SAIC

Illustration by Cortney Anderson.

As the school begins to reopen and classes resume, School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) community members on and off campus are working to adapt to new standards. The Visiting Artists Program (VAP), which brings established individuals from the art world into SAIC’s Rubloff Auditorium to lecture, must also accommodate new restrictions. In order to adapt to COVID-19 related concerns and allow for programming to continue to be open to the public, the VAP has announced its Fall 2020 lineup as a series of online lectures.

Events will continue to be non-ticketed and open to the public, but the shift to virtual events does not come without its own set of COVID-related challenges. “While some folks have gotten very familiar with Zoom and working online, we cannot assume it is familiar to everyone,” said VAP Program Coordinator Anja Xheka, in an interview this September.

The Visiting Artists Program has a Faculty Senate Advisory committee that they work closely with to help inform the program schedule for the following year. They are also attentive to suggestions for speakers that are received from students, faculty, staff, and the general public on an ongoing basis.

Director of the VAP Andrea Pierro said that the program typically sends invitations to speakers at least six months in advance — sometimes earlier, if the guest is high-profile.  “Sometimes it can take a few years to confirm a guest for a particular time frame based upon their availability,” she said, adding that, “The majority of our speakers for this fall were already confirmed for in-person events prior to the pandemic. Converting their programs to online events prompted new conversations with the guests to ensure they were comfortable presenting online, what the program will look like for screen versus in-person, and how we account for things like different time zones for international guests.”

Because of the kind of preparation required for VAP lectures, and being at the true mercy of the spontaneous nature of technology, there is a lot to consider in terms of  troubleshooting, accessibility, and communication between lecturers and attendees.

The way the audience is able to interact with the lecturer has also had to shift. Questions asked by participants during a lecture will be answered via follow-up email. “Regardless, this semester will provide an opportunity for us to experiment. I always love to hear from students and talk to them about their interests and ideas and how the programs through VAP contribute to their experience at SAIC,” said Pierro.

Every year the lineup consists of one distinguished alumni lecturer; this year, it’s interdisciplinary artist Nyugen E. Smith (MFA 2016), who said he was contacted by email with a request to lecture for the VAP.

“When it happened, I thought about all of the well-deserving alumni who also deserve the honor,” Smith said, acknowledging his admiration for the rest of his Low-Residency MFA cohort. “I feel really excited. I am really happy to be on a list with so many other artists that I admire.”

Smith reflects on the value of the opportunity to lecture for both himself and for students:  “To be able to bridge the gap between developing artists and the established artists that are lecturing by encouraging the students to reach out to those that they’ve seen lecture at the school is a huge benefit. The VAP can open that door for people and help them establish relationships.”

The VAP has been an integral part of the school’s curriculum and community outreach since its conception in 1868. “We bring some of the most influential artists, designers, and scholars to SAIC to present their work in a public forum and engage with students,” said Xheka. “It provides a platform for innovative ideas that can be generative and educational to foster a greater understanding and appreciation of contemporary art and culture. The Visiting Artists Program is central to the school’s interdisciplinary curriculums. VAP also works to serve the broader Chicago community, as our events are free, non-ticketed, and open to the public.”

The Fall 2020 lineup includes six events that include lectures by five individual artists, and one art collective. In sequential order, the Fall 2020 Visiting Artist Program lineup will feature: Fred Wilson, Ocean Vuong, Irma Boom, Ebony G. Patterson, Nyugen Smith, and the Raq Media Collective.

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