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Figge holds its own, anticipates new 'blockbuster' exhibit
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Figge holds its own, anticipates new 'blockbuster' exhibit

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In 2019, Day of the Dead activities at the Figge Art Museum in Davenport drew about 4,000 people in a high-energy potpourri of decorating sugar skulls, eating chips and salsa, listening to music and having their faces painted.

In 2020, with in-person restrictions because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Mexican holiday celebration was more subdued.

Beautifully dressed life-sized Catrina dolls with skull faces were placed throughout the museum for viewing. The public was invited to send in or drop off tokens of deceased loved ones to be placed on a remembrance altar in the lobby.

And staff prepared what executive director Michelle Hargrave describes as a "robust" online program aimed at families. It included a comprehensive 18-minute video explaining the holiday, recipes for making sugar and clay skulls at home and printable images that could be cut out to make paper dolls. Kits with clay for making skulls, a butterfly activity and a sugar skull to decorate were assembled for pickup.

Doing these activities at home is not as easy as having everything handed out and explained by an in-person instructor, but creating the online option is the best the museum staff could do, and some 700 people took them up on the offer, a response Hargrave termed "tremendous."

In fact, 700 participants has been the typical response for each of the museum's monthly Family Days. Art activities are centered around a particular artist, with a supply kit similar to those offered for Day of the Dead, accompanied by online programs and an opportunity to visit the museum in person for free.

As soon as the closure hit in mid-March, staff began creating these online programs to continue "fulfilling the mission of bringing art to the community," Hargrave said. Others have included virtual tours of exhibitions and Thursday evening programs.

"Henry Dreyfuss: Designs for the Modern Age" was the most widely attended virtual exhibition with more than 500 visitors, she said.   

Overall, in-person attendance at the Figge is down about 20% from the normal average of 100,000 visitors annually, and earned income have decreased about 65%, Hargrave said. The latter includes admissions, special events, paid programs, retail and rentals.

But the museum is holding its own with the $750,000 it receives annually from the city of Davenport for taking care of the city's art collection, and a total of $580,900 in emergency grants targeted for COVID-19 relief. This includes support from the Quad-Cities Cultural Trust as well as $264,000 from the Payroll Protection Program of the federal CARES Act and $111,5000 from the Iowa Arts Council, Hargrave said.

The museum's board of trustees also created a match challenge during the museum's closure that raised $78,000 in community support.

Since reopening, attendance remains capped at 100 visitors at a time, with individual galleries capped at fewer. To make sure visitors can see what they want when they come, a reservation system has been instituted. In-person programming has resumed but is limited to 10. Masks are required; safety shields have been installed at places of face-to-face contact and the family activity center has been retrofitted for distancing.

The museum temporarily furloughed seven part-time employees but is now back to a full staff of 29 full- and part-time employees.

And Hargrave, along with other directors of Q-C nonprofit cultural entities, is looking forward to a big pickup of in-person visits and programs, rentals, shopping, café dining and fundraising events — all the "normal" things — once vaccines become more widely distributed and infections get tamped down in late spring and summer.

The Figge also has a big drawing card ready to play beginning Feb. 20: the opening of its second "blockbuster" exhibit titled "For America," featuring more than 90 paintings by American artists from 1810 through 2010, drawn from the collections of the National Academy of Design in New York.

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